SBJ/20090119/Facilities

Change comes to Washington as Nats switch from Centerplate

The Washington Nationals have become the first big-league team in recent memory to part ways with its concessionaire after the inaugural season at a new ballpark.

Levy Restaurants and Facility Merchandising Inc. are taking over the food and retail accounts, respectively, after the Nationals cut ties with Centerplate, according to several industry sources.

Both firms have had a presence in Washington. Levy operates premium dining at Verizon Center; FMI ran the Nationals’ retail during the team’s three seasons at RFK Stadium.

“We cannot comment at this time,” Nationals spokeswoman Chartese Burnett said Tuesday. Centerplate and Facility Merchandising officials did not return e-mails and phone calls for confirmation.

Levy did not reply to requests for comment, either, but on Jan. 7 job openings were posted on Careerbuilder.com for 15 to 20 Levy Restaurants management positions in concessions, premium dining and administration at Nationals Park. The location in the listings was later changed to the Northeast, with no mention of Nationals Park, after an item ran in SportsBusiness Daily about Levy taking over the food service.

It was no secret the Nationals were unhappy with what officials felt was Centerplate’s subpar performance at Nationals Park in 2008, the team’s first season at its new $693 million facility. Two weeks before the season ended, Nationals President Stan Kasten told the Washington Times there was a possibility that Centerplate would not return to the ballpark in 2009.

Centerplate signed a 20-year contract in late summer 2007 that paid the Nationals a commission rate exceeding 50 percent for regular concessions, according to sources, the highest in Major League Baseball. Those terms, coupled with the Nats’ struggles last season at the gate, where they averaged 29,005 paid spectators in a 41,888-seat stadium, resulted in Centerplate losing millions of dollars, sources said.

Publicly held Centerplate is being sold to private equity firm Kohlberg & Co. in a deal that Centerplate officials have said is expected to close in the first quarter, pending shareholder approval.

Some Centerplate clients have change-of-control clauses in their contracts that allow them to change concessionaires if the firm is sold. The possibility also exists that Kohlberg is trying to eliminate a deal with terms it views as unfavorable before completing the merger. If that is the case, Centerplate could be the one exercising an escape clause, said a source with experience negotiating concessions contracts. It was unknown whether Centerplate had that option in the D.C. contract.

A separate source, consultant Chris Bigelow, who helped the Nationals develop concessions at their new park, said, “I don’t think attendance reached what [both parties] had projected internally, and they weren’t hitting their numbers. After that happens, nobody’s happy.”

Levy will be the Nationals’ third food provider in three seasons. Aramark managed concessions and premium dining at RFK before the team moved to Nationals Park.

 FALCONS NEST: In a dicey economy, Bowling Green State University is forging ahead with developing Stroh Center, a 5,000-seat basketball facility.

One side of the planned Stroh Center
at Bowling Green is nearly all glass.

The Mid-American Conference school has raised $12.8 million in private donations, close to its goal of collecting $14 million to help finance the project, said Athletic Director Greg Christopher.

“We’ve transitioned from our lead gifts to grassroots fundraising,” Christopher said. “We have a generous and loyal set of donors.”

Construction on the Rossetti-designed arena should start later this year, with opening set for the 2011-12 season.

The $36 million price is modest compared with a $200 million arena the University of Oregon has planned, but the two facilities share a common thread: club seats and no suites.

Don Muret can be reached at dmuret@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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