The push to get fans to arrive early
Eat, drink — and be early. That’s the mantra for teams, concessionaires and the companies managing ballparks, arenas and stadiums.
In addition to driving additional revenue, getting fans into the venue earlier reduces parking and traffic snarls, makes security and ticket-scanning at the gates move faster, and increases home-field advantage by getting more of the crowd into their seats for player introductions and the start of the game.
Accomplishing that goal boils down to both a math problem and a social problem.
First, the math. For a typical NFL game, 65% to 70% of fans enter the stadium within 30 minutes of kickoff, said Zach Hensley, vice president of venue services and guest experience for the Seattle Seahawks and CenturyLink Field. That last-minute crowd crush leads to long lines, a circumstance fans hate. Grumpy customers are less likely to want to spend money once they make it inside — and they’re less likely to want to come back.
Then there is the social problem. Now more than ever, fans want to be entertained throughout each step of game day. And much of what they want is a place to gather; to see and be seen. A place to sip on custom cocktails and craft beers; to munch on traditional and nontraditional snacks; to listen to a DJ or live music and then glance up at television screens showing highlights and broadcasts of other games in progress.
If they can’t have all of that, and comfortably, then they’ll go to a sports bar or stay home and have a party with friends while watching the main event on a 70-inch, high-definition TV. That reality drives home the urgency to get fans in early.
“When I look into what the environment is of the total sports scene, we’ve got to create social spaces,” said Jay Satenspiel, senior vice president at Spectra Food Services and Hospitality. Spectra’s clients include Texas Tech’s football and basketball programs and four MLS teams. “People are no longer interested in coming to a stadium or an arena and just watching a game.”
As for the financial side of the equation, more people arriving early boosts food and drink sales and impulse merchandise buys. And in most cases, those early sales don’t cannibalize the amount sold during the game itself.
So how do you get fans to arrive earlier? Custom food and drink can help, but they better be good and they better not come at the expense of traditional fare such as hot dogs, burgers and nachos. Price matters, but it’s not everything. And discounts alone won’t change people’s arrival habits en masse. For football fans especially, audibles on pregame rituals can be a hard sell.
“What we’ve found here in New Orleans is that people enjoy being outdoors on a Sunday afternoon,” said Doug Thornton, executive vice president of stadiums and arenas at SMG, the company that manages Mercedes-Benz Superdome. “Competing with the tailgating environment is something we all live with.”
The Superdome, home to the NFL’s Saints, is blessed and cursed by its surroundings. Four parking decks make it difficult for fans to set up shop and cook outside before games. In response, SMG, Superdome concessionaire Centerplate and the Saints have worked together to create a tailgate atmosphere in an area dubbed Champions Square.
The 90,000-square-foot outdoor site is next to the Superdome on property controlled by the Benson family, which also owns the Saints and the NBA’s Pelicans. Champions Square and a connected indoor lounge, club XLIV — a tribute to the Saints’ Super Bowl win — are open to the public several hours before kickoff on game days. Typically, capacity crowds of 8,000 fans jam Champions Square, where food trucks and Centerplate-run concessions keep fans eating and drinking (and spending). The usual modern-day fan necessities, such as televisions and live music, are part of the presentation.
Diana Evans, Centerplate senior vice president of marketing, credited Champions Square with elevating sales and spirits alike. “It creates excitement and energy, which is something you want because this is a live sporting event,” she said, adding that Champions Square accounts for 5% to 10% of food and beverage revenue on Saints game days.
At Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, home of the NFL’s Dolphins, Centerplate embraced a more traditional tailgate culture by creating convenience stores out of portable shipping containers. Stocked with beer, water and ice as well as team merchandise, the containers are dispersed in stadium parking lots with attendants to help fans restock their coolers and pick up a shirt or hat.
For fans who use ride-share services, Centerplate will take reservations and provide a grill and food for those who still want to tailgate. For the 2019 season, the Dolphins and Centerplate are introducing a catered tailgate area for fans of the visiting team. Miami’s Dec. 1 game against Philadelphia already has 2,500 commitments from traveling Eagles fans.
Locally and nationally acclaimed chefs have aligned with teams and concessionaires in recent years to develop general concession menu items and participate in tailgate events. The Miami Heat, working with Levy Restaurants, has increased early arrivals — and sales — for premium ticket-holders with a program that brings in food from area restaurants to create a high-end buffet.
Michelle Artimez, Heat culinary marketing manager, said such chef partners were in place for 75% to 80% of home games in 2018-19. Several chefs have already asked to participate again next season, she said.
Teams in other sports are equally focused on come early, stay late pitches. Centerplate and the Seattle Mariners have one of the most successful versions with The ’Pen, a pregame hangout in center field next to the home team’s bullpen. It opens 2 ½ hours before first pitch and includes special pricing such as $7 beers on tap up to an hour before game time. Depending on the day of the week, The ’Pen attracts up to 3,000 people. They come for the fire pit, various cuisine and a cocktail lounge, where mixologists this season introduced the Magenta Mojo, a $12.50 concoction that, in its coloring, pays tribute to new ballpark namesake T-Mobile.
John Sergi, a consultant on food and beverage and hospitality design and strategy, said teams and venues usually succeed when they try to do more than just generate additional sales.
In 2016 and ’17, Sergi helped the Milwaukee Brewers with a stadiumwide concessions overhaul at Miller Park emphasizing local character and flavor. The Brewers, local firm Hospitality Democracy and concessionaire Delaware North Sportservice created themed bars and hangout areas that have helped bring fans in earlier.
“With the Brewers, tailgating is a very big part of that culture,” he said. “When we were working on the redesign, we knew what was going on in the parking lot. You can look at it transactionally and say, ‘That’s taking money from food and beverage and how can we capture that money?’ I don’t look at it that way at all. … It may have a lot to do with, well, what the hell do you do when you get in the ballpark and what can we do for you? That’s how we looked at it.”
Delaware North worked with another Wisconsin team whose fans know something about tailgating — the Green Bay Packers — to create the Tailgate Village in 2017. Sponsored by sausage company Johnsonville, the 2,000-capacity venue next to Lambeau Field includes live music, televisions and the team concessionaire’s food and beverages. It’s open four hours before kickoff. After kickoff, fans who don’t have game tickets can use it, offering still more incremental sales.
Happy hours and other discount concession programs in some cases boost sales, but many of the industry executives who spoke to SBJ said those promotions aren’t nearly enough to change fans’ habits.
“When we first started looking at what our teams were doing, many of our teams had a straight percent discount if you came and purchased between a certain time,” said Jaime Faulkner, CEO of Levy Restaurants analytics division E15. “And we found that most people didn’t know that existed even if they were getting the discount on their purchase. They had no idea.”
Concessions consultant Chris Bigelow said the lack of impact from discounted food and drink has surprised many in the industry. “Pricing is not as important as we all thought it would be as a lure,” he said. “If it’s a popular hangout, it’s a popular hangout regardless of price.” The ’Pen at the Mariners ballpark is a perfect example, he added.
E15 spends a lot of time discussing with clients how best to create such hangouts. Numerous teams tinker with formulas that include cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs, appearances by former players and other team ambassadors, and on-location team TV and radio broadcasts.
And, as Faulkner put it, teams are looking at campus development: revamping unused parts of stadiums and arenas or building adjacent staging areas outside. MLB clubs including the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs combine those types of strategies with E15’s deep-dive analysis of consumer habits and preferences to pitch fans on spending more time at the ballpark.
Teams and concessionaires declined to disclose specific business arrangements, but said they are constantly considering tweaks with food and drink strategies. They also have to negotiate with each other and be willing to sometimes sacrifice revenue or profit margins in their attempts to boost early arrivals.
“You’ve got to try [new things],” Bigelow said. “And if there’s going to be risk, it’s got to be shared.”
Generally speaking, though, “if we’re adding resources, then we would need to see a return on investment,” said Alison Birdwell, vice president of the central region at Aramark Sports & Entertainment. Aramark’s sports portfolio includes nine MLB ballparks and 10 NFL stadiums. “Any time we’re whole with our additional labor costs and we can drive sales beyond what we would usually get in that time period, it’s definitely a worthy cause.”
Hensley, the Seahawks’ stadium executive, pointed to the team’s switch in 2017 to in-house concessions as an important step that allows for greater flexibility and more patience. This season, Seattle is introducing an ESPN “College GameDay”-type experience at an events center located on the stadium’s south side while adding live music and lower pregame concession prices on the north plaza.
“You’re going to have to educate your fans,” he said. “You might not see actual trends increase until maybe regular-season game three, game four.”
Another team that recently took control of concessions, MLS club Sporting Kansas City, is putting less emphasis on trying to change fans’ habits.
“What we’re trying to focus on to a larger degree than trying to get people outside of whatever their ingrained pattern is, is once they’re here, being more efficient around how we transact and extend our selling windows,” said John Moncke, the team’s executive vice president of stadium and brand revenue. “We’re investing very heavily in mobile ordering.”
Technology, of course, looms large no matter the strategy. Industry executives anticipate continuing surges in sales and traffic data, information that will allow them to further refine their pregame sales tactics. And, they say, the hospitality campaigns make both business sense and common sense.
“These people are devoting hours of their lives every week to these teams that they love,” said Evans, the Centerplate marketing executive. “And we’re their hosts. They’re coming to our house. We want to make sure we’re treating them to experiences that hug them back.”
Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.