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Steep food discounts at U.S. stadiums slow to move north of the border


When the new home of the Atlanta Falcons and United FC opened its doors in 2017, sports fans not only had a brand new stadium in which to watch their teams, but were treated to what management called the lowest concession prices in professional sports.

That strategy paid off as fans spent an average of 16 per cent more on concessions that year over the previous season when food was 50 per cent more expensive. The success at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium prompted a wave of similar adjustments at other sports arenas across the U.S.

Cheaper snacks aren't yet filling stadiums north of the border to the same degree, industry watchers say. But as sports teams need to be wary of pricing fans out of attending games, a break at the hot dog stand may eventually come to Canadian sports fans.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium's debut featured US$2 hot dogs, pretzels, bags of popcorn, water bottles and refillable sodas. Cheese-topped nachos, waffle fries and pizza slices cost US$3. Cheeseburgers and one type of draft beer set sports fans back US$5.

That compared with average prices at NFL stadiums that year of US$8.20 for beer, US$5.09 for soft drinks and US$5.46 for a hot dog, according to the Team Marketing's annual NFL fan cost index.

After a year of operations, the stadium announced it would trim US$1 off several premium items, like the Italian sausage (to US$7) and a free-range fried chicken sandwich (to US$10).

"I don't know if we have started that here in Canada," said Robert Carter, executive director of food service for market research firm NPD Group, of the wave of similar price reductions Atlanta's changes sparked at other U.S. stadiums.

Some Canadian stadiums hosting major league games have started to introduce a smattering of lower-priced food options, but they don't quite compare to Atlanta's broad moves.

Americans tend to be more sensitive to price than Canadians, said Carter. American restaurants, for example, tend to offer dollar and value menus more so than their Canadian counterparts. Canadians, on the other hand, tend to be driven more by quality, he said.

"Canadians are willing to invest in what they perceive to be higher quality, better for you, stronger flavour profile foods," said Carter.

Instead of focusing on lowering prices, Carter said, Canadian stadiums seem to be more concerned about expanding their menu offerings to include more premium dishes. At Toronto's Scotiabank Arena, patrons can dine on sushi rolls and burritos; gourmet hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches; and chicken kimchi topped fries.

Of the eight stadiums where NHL, NBA and MLB teams play in Canada, all declined interviews to speak about fan-friendly concession prices or did not respond to requests. Half provided written statements or answers to emailed questions.

The Toronto Blue Jays, which set food prices at the Rogers Centre with its concessionaire, Aramark, said it lowered the price of a 20 ounce domestic draught by 50 cents this year, and introduced a value menu featuring $3 hot dogs and $2 bottles of water, among other things. The stadium will have further targeted concession initiatives in the 2019 season.

Canucks Sports & Entertainment, which determines prices at Vancouver's Rogers Arena, said it introduced a family zone last year with a more affordable kid's menu, and pointed to its happy hour pricing.

The Ottawa Senators, whose home is the Canadian Tire Centre, said it lowered parking prices this season and launched lower-priced snack packs that can be bought for the first hour after the stadium doors open at every game.

Winnipeg Jets owner True North Sports + Entertainment, which along with its partner Centerplate decides on prices at Bell MTS Place, said it is "mindful" of offering fan-friendly prices for all products.

While there's room for premium food offerings, sports teams also need to protect their core fan base and not price them out of games if they want to grow their business, said Alan Rownan, head of sports for market-research firm Euromonitor International.

"This is ultimately done by demonstrating the match day value," he said, via the stadium atmosphere and lack of empty seats, which comes down to fan-friendly pricing.

Teams need to demonstrate their value to fans to fill seats and don't want to reach a tipping point where fans wonder whether attending games is worth it, he said, especially now that alternative viewing options abound.

It's also important to ensure young fans can afford events, he said, as they can possibly grow into wealthy adults who want to splurge on premium tickets and concessions.

However, it's important not to look at one metric in a vacuum, Rownan said, explaining food prices are one part of the value equation.

"I'd see it as a strategy that trickles down."

 

Follow @AleksSagan on Twitter.

Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press

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