A floor seat at a basketball game has a powerful cultural weight. It helps that it’s the best and most exciting way to watch a basketball game, but it’s appeal goes beyond that. Those seats are where celebrities and investors go to see the game and be seen watching that game—a badge of wealth and prominence that’s priced accordingly. Even at the shittiest and least consequential game they go for around $1,350. At Oracle Arena, during the NBA Finals, they went for anywhere from $15,000 to $90,000 a game.
The NFL, a league whose defining characteristic is how much it wants more money, wants that courtside-seat money, too. They want Tony Robbins gesticulating at players a few feet away. They want people to talk about NFL Field Seats™, and they want every team to build them so that they can show that football—which is very rich but not terribly glamorous—can be a luxury sport, too. NFL owners are experiencing some acute economic anxiety, after all, given that they had to split a pot of just $7.8 billion between their teams in 2017. Something must be done.
Of course, it’s not just the luxury that makes courtside seats into a product that can be sold as courtside seats. It’s the visceral immediacy of the game literally happening in front of you, seen from a perspective that few other places in the arena can offer. And here the NFL has some inherent problems.
For one thing, the field is just too fucking big. At any given point during a NFL game you’ve got about a hundred people walking around who aren’t playing the game that could block a prospective courtside seat-holder’s view, walk into them, or be walked into by them. Also the league has a pervasive and well-earned association with alcohol that makes giving attendees easy access to players worrisome at best. And then you’ve got the very real chance that some rich person with a very expensive ticket could get hurt—it happens in basketball, except in this case the players are hurtling at you and wearing body armor.
Does this mean it’s impossible to make the NFL equivalent of courtside seats work? Absolutely not. The San Francisco 49ers are trying to figure it out right now, and after experiencing it myself at a preseason game I can tell you, if nothing else, that the effort is not nearly as doomed-on-arrival as I imagined it would be.
The Dolphins started this trend when they added their “living room” seating at the 35-yard-line and end zones in 2015. These seats went for $16,750 to $18,750, were sold only as a package of four, and amounted to recliners that come complete with iPads, all-inclusive food, booze, and car service; they were marketed to the largest, wealthiest sons that South Florida has to offer, and sold out immediately. For only $15,000, you can add another television—or up to four, for $30,000—so that you can watch NFL Red Zone and ignore the Miami Dolphins game happening very nearby.
The idea behind all this is relatively simple: Miami’s front office realized that they had a 6-10 team, and that they were competing for the attention of people who might otherwise be watching that team while sitting on big recliners in their homes, where they would not have to wait in line to pay for a $32 hot dog or a $14 beer. Instead of making the experience more appealing for everyone, they made it much more distracting and appealing for the people who could afford it. Teams like the Vikings and Panthers have dipped into field seats, too; you may recall the injured Adrian Peterson heading to the clubhouse past a group of bemused patrons in the Vikings’ VIP bar. For the 49ers, joining that club was an inevitability: the Raiders are leaving for Las Vegas, the Warriors are a season or so from a luxurious new arena, and the San Jose Sharks’ BMW Club has got an actual fucking shark in it. Those valuable luxury dollars are just out there sloshing around, and while the owners of the 49ers stadium couldn’t build a stadium that doesn’t leave have the fans in attendance scorched by the sun, they can absolutely stick 64 recliners in their end zones.
The $12,500-a-season (not $15,000) seats line the north and south ends of the stadium, with a small barrier that I assume exists to slow down fast-moving players (as opposed to those from the number 21 rushing offense in the NFL) from the other team (running against the 22nd-ranked rushing defense in the NFL) so that they don’t go crashing into the swells. It’s an all-inclusive in-seat bacchanalia that comes with access to something called the IdentoGO Field Club (what a memorable name!) for the South Field Seats, or the all-you-can-eat tailgate run by chef Michael Mina, which usually costs anything from $375 to $500 on the north. Everyone gets free parking. Cost-wise, you can easily offload parking for $50-100, and I’ve seen Mina passes easily sell for $400; if Stubhub is any indication, people are comfortably offloading their extras to bankroll the rest of the seats. A VIP seat for the Final Battle of the Bay is, as I write this, going for $3,000 and up, with some others going for about $1,300. It’s all still very new, but there is at least some secondary market for the chance to veg in a Barcalounger near a NFL game.
On the North Field, getting to the seats requires fans to go through an employee entrance to the right of Michael Mina’s tailgate—through the giant glass doorway at the end of a red carpet, and near the random picnic table. It was the same space I’d visited during the Super Bowl, an all-inclusive, strenuously high-end, deeply bizarre bar-restaurant with loud, bass-heavy music and a DJ yelling something about seating arrangements. The layout centers around a giant bar, with two different buffet selections—cold cuts, crab legs, shrimp cocktail, and a Bloody Mary bar where I witnessed a guy running some of the sloppiest game I have ever witnessed before his son yanked on his arm to make him leave. Around the side was a hot buffet serving (really good) barbecue food. I gingerly put two ribs on my plate before a guy bellowed “DAMN, YOU’RE LOADING UP” at me. I couldn’t respond before he earnestly and almost angrily pointed to the mac-and-cheese and said “do NOT forget this.” He then walked away. I asked the chef if the man worked there, and I was informed that he did not.
I awkwardly ate my ribs and chicken at the bar, absolutely ruining a cloth napkin that someone dutifully walked up and took away, leaving me to walk up and get another one with my face smeared with barbecue sauce like an adult baby. The woman who gave me my new napkin nodded with a look of deep understanding, saying “it happens all the time,” which makes sense.
I cannot emphasize enough what a deeply weird atmosphere this is—it wants to be a club, a cookout, a picnic, and a top shelf bar at the same time. It’s as if they asked Rob Schneider’s problematic impression of a rapper to design a tailgate. It’s not unpleasant, the food and drink is great, but it’s difficult to relax when the music’s blaring and DJ Gentrification is yelling that the next seating is starting. It was loud enough that entering the actual game was distinctly quieter.
Here’s how you do that: go through another employees-only door, which you’d likely miss if you were not specifically directed towards it, and then through some other unmarked doors and into the tunnel that the staff/players use. You then straight up walk through the player tunnel onto the field, where you are greeted by about 15 different security people who firmly but very nicely ask what you want. Once you’ve got your wristband, you basically turn right at the field and walk to your seats, which are just there. During the pregame practices, balls are kicked toward your general vicinity, amid plenty of “fore!”-esque yelling to make sure someone doesn’t have to visit the Snickers™ Emergency Ward or Gatorade #DignityMorgue™.
This is of course garish and strange and all that, but I regret to inform that it is also pretty cool. You are right there, in a way that really does feel special, and the experience has an immediacy that really is comparable to floor seats at a basketball game, or against-the-glass hockey seats. The pre-game prep happens right in front of your weird, reclining bubble. Because 2018 is the way it is, this isn’t as boring as it should be: as the players ran out, several stopped to kneel in our end zone to pray. The fans booed them, seemingly not quite understanding what was going on; one player kept kneeling a little longer than usual, his head pointed at the ground, jumping up suddenly just before the anthem began, which somehow drew less boos despite being the thing people were ostensibly angry about. As I knelt to try and get a photo of him, I realized that the anthem had begun and I was now the one kneeling. I got up before the people behind me started to throw anything.
The over-the-top stuff about the experience is indeed over-the-top—all-you-can-drink and all-you-can-eat means just that, and you really can have three orders of chicken tenders, fries, and two beers if you want; I asked, and they seemed happy to serve me all that before I said I was kidding. I cut my order to one of each, but I had to know. But what works about the experience has nothing much to do with the tendies. It turns out that it’s pretty cool to be this close to a football game.
Other than the occasional view of someone’s camera/ass as they stood directly in front of me, these seats’ particular level of just-above-the-field was just about perfect, even when the action was on the other side of the field. Something about the elevation and angle, coupled with how players lined up, meant that it was easy to see plays develop. Passes took on a little extra drama, especially as they get closer to your recliner. While things are less exciting when they’re over the other side of the field, they’re not really ever hard to see; when they’re over in yours it’s genuinely awesome. Much like being close-up at an NBA game, the buzz comes from seeing how fast these giant men can move while trying to kill each other over the football.
To the extent that the recliner adds anything to this, it is a degree of weird and slothful guilt. You are sitting there, with your phone plugged in, surrounded by a growing pile of gleaming empty fry boxes and drained beers, just lounging your ass off while people commit heroic feats of athleticism in front of you. You’re very visible and oddly vulnerable, sitting (lying?) down as you might at home, with the notable differences that you are very much in public and that there’s a slight chance that a ball or player could hit you at high speed. I can only imagine that, once we’re out of the preseason and if the 49ers get good, you’ll see these seats fill up with progressively angrier and more demanding fans—the same ones that get extremely mad about being only 24,000th on the Warriors Season Tickets list, the rich and unsatisfied men who write angry, unread letters to Steph Curry. Perhaps, if the 49ers can succeed in building a team worth watching, these will become the coveted seats that the team wants them to be—a place where famous people scratch their asses and lounge about conspicuously.
Even if they fail to make the playoffs, though, I can see these seats selling out. They’re appetizing corporate-entertainment chum, if nothing else—comfortable, ultra-connected, walletless affairs with better sightlines than a suite and more cachet. People will be impressed even if the Niners revert to their natural 5-11 state. Other NFL teams will build more such seats, just as has happened with deluxe movie theaters, and other sports will follow until the first row of most games look like a Business Class flight. And then everyone will get to work on creating an experience more exclusive and expensive than that.
It’s already happening, at least to an extent—in-seat service isn’t new for the 49ers, but people “investing” in seat builder licenses might reasonably start to ask what exactly it is they’re investing in. Nicer seats with fringe benefits also make people stay at games longer, get drunker, and buy more marked-up stadium shit. Even if the tanked-up fancy fans don’t buy anything, these seats serve a purpose for owners, if only from an ego-driven perspective. Whatever branded name gets put on the Platinum Recliner Zone Experience, it’s a way to turn an NFL seat into a true luxury item—a status symbol for the sort of higher net-worth individuals that NFL owners most want to attract and impress. It’s also another bargaining chip for owners when it’s time to convince local authorities that, in fact, they’re getting a great deal by giving billions of taxpayer dollars to some of the richest men on earth. Set those state senators up with a luxury recliner and bottomless tendies, even for a meaningless January game, and they’re bound to see things differently.