If things work out the way the San Francisco 49ers are hoping, Friday’s game at Levi’s Stadium between Cal and Oregon will be the first of many college football games to take place at the new venue.
Levi’s will also host the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 5 and the San Francisco Bowl on Dec. 30, but a few years down the line the lineup could potentially include an early season, neutral-site game and the College Football Playoff championship. At least that’s the goal.
The College Football Playoff championship sites are set through the 2016 season, but when the request for proposal process begins for the three games after that, the 49ers plan to participate, according to the team’s director of business operations, Chris Giles.
"Myself and the leadership over at the playoff group have had multiple discussions," Giles said. "I think we can make a very compelling case that the national championship should be at Levi’s Stadium."
Located about an hour south of San Francisco in Santa Clara, the stadium is to host Super Bowl 50 following the 2015 NFL season, WrestleMania in February 2015, and is actively pursuing other high-profile events, including international soccer matches and concerts, to fill the rest of the calendar.
"The intention all the way to completion [of construction] was to make the venue a 365-day-a-year venue," 49ers chief revenue officer Ethan Casson said. "We absolutely wanted the focal point to be on our football team and the 49ers, but we just believe a venue like this with what we are doing specific to technology, green and fan experience, it would be phenomenal to program this building with high-profile events above and beyond the NFL games. That’s where college football has really resonated."
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who is on the Board of Managers for the College Football Playoff, said part of the criteria for the championship game is to rotate it among several sites and the West region "will get its fair share of games." This year’s game will be played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, followed by University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, next season and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, after that.
"All the fan amenities really do distinguish Levi’s as a special place to play," Scott said. "It’s a new venue that a lot of people will want to see. Media, sponsors, alumni of our schools ... it’s a big attraction, and undoubtedly it would be highly successful in the championship game mix."
Scott was impressed enough with the venue’s offerings to ditch the conference’s home-hosting model for the Pac-12 championship game and move it to Santa Clara for at least three seasons.
For Giles, who worked closely with Scott at the Pac-12 before going to work for the 49ers, the pairing between Levi’s and the Pac-12 seemed like a natural fit.
"The game is worthy of being played on the biggest stage, and now it is. It’s not just another home game," he said. "It allows us to build a festival atmosphere. Having run that game for the Pac-12 before coming here, it’s very difficult to do things that are typically associated with a game of that magnitude from a fan-engagement and auxiliary events standpoint."
The Pac-12 had operations teams on site for at least two 49ers games this season, and Scott said it will have a large contingent present on Friday. He said they also expect feedback from both Cal and Oregon to be helpful for the game’s planning process.
An announcement of a title partner for the San Francisco Bowl, which was known as the Fight Hunger Bowl last year, is expected to be made in the next couple weeks, according to Casson.
Casson, who has worked closely with the San Francisco Bowl Game Association to find a title sponsor, said the bowl’s move from AT&T Park in San Francisco, where the game has been played since 2002, and its new pairing with the Big Ten has helped drum up significant interest. He said there were about six companies that seriously looked into the title partnership and either made a bid or wanted to.
The bowl will get the fourth pick among Pac-12 teams -- after the Rose/Playoff Group, Alamo and Holiday Bowls -- and at least five different Big Ten teams will play in the game over a six-year period.
The 49ers are also interested in developing an early season series -- comparable to the Cowboys Classic in Arlington -- that would ideally create an intriguing nonconference game early in the year, but it’s unclear what the timetable is for that to become a reality.
"I’m talking with [athletic directors] on a weekly basis, and lot of what we’re talking about is 2019, 2020, 2021," Giles said.
Because of how far in advance teams schedule nonconference games, Giles said it’s easier -- at least for now -- to have a team relocate one of its home games to the stadium. That was the case for Cal-Oregon, which came about after discussions to bring this year’s Big Game between Cal and Stanford broke down late last August.
Giles said potential home games at Levi’s aren’t limited to the Bay Area’s three FBS schools -- Cal, Stanford and San Jose State -- but he wouldn’t pursue a home-game relocation from a school that wasn’t a "reasonable driving distance from the stadium."
That presumably leaves Fresno State, which is about 150 miles away, as another option. The Bulldogs played Cal at the 49ers' previous home, Candlestick Park, in 2011.