Inside the 49ers' new tech-rich stadium

Levi's Stadium is the third NFL stadium to open in the last five years -- but the only one billed as a tech haven.

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Levi's Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers will play for the first time on Sunday. Richard Nieva/CNET

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Patrick Willis, the San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl linebacker, is in two places at once.

He is posing for a photo with me at the 49ers museum at Levi's Stadium, the NFL team's new home in Silicon Valley, some 40 miles south of San Francisco. Simultaneously, he is on the other side of the complex getting ready to take the field for practice.

The $1.3 billion stadium is full of cutting-edge technology, but, no, the team hasn't figured out how to clone its defensive superstar. The version of Willis standing next to me is a part of the so-called "augmented reality" jumbotron, one of the many parlor tricks in the technologically rich stadium. The exhibit lets fans interact with life-size video renderings of players on the team, shown on a screen overhead.

The illusion is Silicon Valley's version of smoke and mirrors -- fitting because the stadium sits in close proximity to some of the world's largest tech firms: eight and a half miles from Apple's headquarters, and 12 miles from Google's.

"Before we ever put any shovels in the ground -- years before -- we were working on the technology integrations," said Paraag Marathe, the 49ers team president. "It was a mandate, because of where we are." On Sunday, the 49ers will play their inaugural game at Levi's Stadium, a preseason bout against the Denver Broncos.

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The augmented-reality screen at the 49ers museum, complete with a digital version of linebacker Patrick Willis. Richard Nieva/CNET

Aside from the technology itself, the stadium serves as a physical reminder of the deepening relationship between the technology industry and sports industries. On Tuesday, the NBA announced that former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had officially purchased the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion. Professional sports management is rife with people with tech ties. To name a few: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen owns the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers. Joe Lacob, a former partner at the venerable Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capital firm, took the reins of the NBA's Golden State Warriors in 2011. The 49ers former president and part owner Gideon Yu is an alum of Facebook, Google, and Yahoo.

Levi's Stadium is the third NFL stadium to open in the last five years -- MetLife Stadium, where the New York Jets and Giants play, and AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, are the others -- but the 49ers stadium is the only one to be billed as a tech-sports haven. The venue has a partnership with Yahoo for a lounge dedicated to fantasy football, which will let fans easily see player stats from around the league. SAP's technology will help analyze data about fans' experience collected at the stadium. At the 49ers museum located onsite, fans can play games on giant screens powered by Microsoft's interactive Kinect technology.

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The field at Levi's Stadium Richard Nieva/CNET

The team also boasts that Wi-Fi at the venue will be more reliable than elsewhere in the league -- four times the minimum bandwidth requirement imposed on NFL stadiums. Small Wi-Fi hubs are mounted under every 100 seats, said Roger Hacker, the team's corporate communications manager.

The Wi-Fi better be strong if the team wants visitors to use its custom smartphone app, which lets people order food from concession stands and have it delivered to their seats. The app also helps people find their way around the venue, store their game tickets, and see instant replay from different angles.

With all that fancy technology, some people are worried that those without smartphones will be left out of the experience. Marathe insists the game experience will be good for everyone, citing the large screens and the way the stands are built taller as opposed to outward. Fans will have clear views of the action, he said, even if they can't see replays on their phones.

But for all the talk around how "smart" the stadium is, the early goings haven't been without its hiccups. During the first public event at the venue earlier this month, a major league soccer game, parking was a headache for fans trying to leave the game. "There are a lot of things we can do better. We always know we can," said Marathe, adding that the app already has parking features, like videos that help fans with routes to their parking spots.

Marathe also says that things will run smoother as the stadium hosts more events. How Silicon Valley of them: Release the product, fix the bugs, and make it better as time goes on.

CNET's Sumi Das contributed to this report.

 

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