Members of a San Francisco 49ers fan club from Los Angeles filled the new supporters section at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday. (Courtesy San Francisco 49ers X2)

Idea drawn from soccer makes debut at Levi’s Stadium

The San Francisco 49ers, putting a twist on an idea from Major League Soccer, have formed the Gold Mine, a new supporters section at Levi’s Stadium. 

The free-admission space, which made its debut for the Sept. 22 regular-season home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, is reserved for the 49ers’ fan clubs, most traveling to the Bay Area from other markets. 

The Gold Mine is a section of 45 temporary seats installed on risers set up on the Dignity Health Plaza in the stadium’s southwest corner. For Sunday’s game, a fan club from Los Angeles filled those seats, leading coordinated cheers with support from the team’s iconic foghorn, the drumline and the Gold Rush cheerleaders.

The free tickets are part of the 49ers’ allotment of complimentary seats reserved for groups participating in game-day presentation, such as the flag holders, national anthem singers and armed forces groups, said Alex Chang, the team’s chief marketing officer. Gold Mine patrons are responsible for their own travel expenses.

“It’s about creating a (stronger) home-field advantage, an injection of energy and excitement in the building and creating something the team thrives off of and helps them succeed,” Chang said. 

The idea for starting a supporters section originated last season, said 49ers President Al Guido. For one game, team officials set up a space for military groups and the energy they brought in rooting for the 49ers got Guido thinking about doing something on a permanent basis.

The 49ers tested the concept Aug. 29 for their preseason game against the San Diego Chargers.

Chang, whom the 49ers hired in April after he spent several years working for sports agencies and brands such as American Express, and other team executives made informal visits to MLS stadiums to get ideas for the Gold Mine. Guido has been to most of the league’s soccer-specific venues on his own over the years. 

Two foghorns are in play at Levi’s Stadium this season, one on a platform next to the new supporters section.

The 49ers also solicited feedback from a dozen of their fan clubs over which traditions they enjoy and new ideas for improving the game-day experience. The team received more than 30 submissions and reduced the list to about three new chants that were to be rolled out Sunday, Chang said.   

“We’re taking what we think are best practices from other sports,” Guido said. “We wanted to get a sense of what supporters sections mean to the rest of the atmosphere when it’s driven organically by fans.”

The 49ers will work closely with the fan clubs to select Gold Mine patrons for the eight regular-season home games, and tickets are distributed electronically to their mobile devices. On game day, they get access to Levi’s Stadium three hours before kickoff, where they check in and get a wristband designating them as Gold Mine members.

The team’s fan engagement team runs them through a rehearsal of sorts to get everybody on the same page in terms of what their responsibilities are as Gold Mine participants. After the rehearsal, they’re free to roam the stadium and get a bite to eat with complimentary food and drink from concession stands. They’re instructed to be back in the Gold Mine section one hour before kickoff to participate in pregame entertainment festivities.

As part of spreading the message in-venue, the Gold Mine is featured on the videoboards in both end zones to help inform all fans attending the game on the chants and cheers tied to the supporters section. 

“We’ll have someone there with them throughout the game to direct them and make sure they’re engaged,” Chang said before Sunday’s game. “Our guess is they won’t need a lot of coaching. They’re some of our most ardent fans and they know the chants. It’s the epicenter of energy in the stadium that flows through the rest of the building.”

Other NFL teams incorporate elements of the supporters group concept. SInce 2003, the Seattle Seahawks have showcased their 12th Man flag-raising ceremony high atop one end zone at CenturyLink Field, and the Minnesota Vikings make a big production of sounding the Gjallerhorn and reciting the Skol chant before kickoff at U.S. Bank Stadium. Former Seahawks and Vikings players are often involved in those rituals.

Last year, the Chicago Bears introduced an air raid siren during their home games at Soldier Field to pump up the volume, which got mixed reviews from their fans and media outlets covering the team. 

In Santa Clara, the 49ers brought the foghorn over from Candlestick Park, where it played a role in game presentation at the team’s old home. At Levi’s Stadium, it had been activated to start the game and then put away. This season, there are two foghorns, one situated on a platform next to the Gold Mine, which sounds off at the end of pregame and before the third quarter. The second horn, on top of the north videoboard will go off after every 49ers touchdown.

Over time, other features will be added to the supporters section, Chang said.

For the 49ers’ second home date, a Monday-night game Oct. 7 against the Cleveland Browns, a fan club from San Jose will occupy the Gold Mine. More groups will be booked for the six remaining home games, including potentially a fan club from Seattle, which is among the 49ers’ biggest supporter groups, Guido said. 

Chang said, “From a fan standpoint, it’s about giving them some recognition and reward and access. We want to make sure we keep innovating what happens here. We’re only five years into Levi’s Stadium and there’s so much more that we can improve on. We want to keep being cutting edge when it comes to what we do, and a lot of that comes from learning from others and listening to our fans.” 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since it was originally posted.