Growing trend: all-you-can-eat sections at big-league parks (cont.)
|Future of 'All-You-Can-Eat'|
As part of the sales team of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999, then-fledgling executives Chad Estis and Brent Stehlik were part of the unit tasked with what they both called the "hardest job in sports."
Tampa Bay was the worst team in NHL history. It was in the midst of four straight 50-loss seasons, becoming the first team in league history to ever do so. In 1997 Forbes magazine ranked it as the worst professional sports franchise economically, reporting the team had accrued a debt equal to an astounding 236 percent of its value.
"We were a last-place hockey team, and a historically bad last-place team at that, in a warm-weather market," Estis said. "Straight up, selling a Lightning season ticket was almost impossible to do at the time. So we would brainstorm ways to have a better opportunity to sell season tickets."
Estis' solution was what would evolve into today's all-you-can-eat options. He helped create a high-end, all-inclusive club in one of the underutilized end zones of the St. Pete Times Forum, then known as the Ice Palace. A huge risk, the renovation to the arena and building of the club cost what Stehlik said was more than $1 million.
Estis, Stehlik and the Lightning's sales team sold the XO Club as a different way to take in a hockey game. Everything was included in the package, even alcohol. The club was catered to corporate clients and large company groups. It was a model -- the all-inclusive experience -- that was fairly common in the service industry but foreign to the sports industry. Estis said the franchise sold out the majority of the club: 500 buyers purchased season tickets.
Estis moved on to the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers in 2001, where he helped bring about two similar concepts of equal success. Even before LeBron James would join the Cavaliers, the team sold out those premium sections. He continued this philosophy with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, with whom he is currently the senior vice president of sales and booking.
Stehlik, now with the San Diego Padres, went from the Lightning to become the COO of the Double A Frisco RoughRiders, a team in the highly competitive Dallas market. Stehlik estimates that around 90 percent of the team's seats in Dr Pepper Ballpark have some sort of all-inclusive package attached to them. In its inaugural season in 2003, the franchise ranked fourth in the minor leagues in attendance, selling out 53 games.
"When we started it, we did it as a way to differentiate our offers," said Steve DeLay, the CMO of Mandalay Baseball Properties, which owns the RoughRiders and five other minor league teams. "What we wanted to do was go in the direction of added value and give fans something they couldn't refuse.
"We wanted to create an offer that makes fans say, 'I'm in.'"
For Michele and John Sparklin of Cockeysville, Md., the seats are the place to get the most value out of their usual couple of trips to the park each year. "It's nice, because everything is overpriced in ballparks," Michele Sparklin said. "You look at the hot dogs, and they're $5. You look at the sodas, they're $6. You even look at the pretzels, and they're so overpriced. It's good that you don't have to deal with any of that."
The theme of value is a common one that spread quickly through baseball. The Dodgers were the first, and perhaps the highest-profile franchise, to implement all-you-can-eat seats. They were second in attendance in 2006, the year before the franchise decided to try to boost its attendance even more in a 3,300-seat right-field pavilion.
It worked. By 2009 the Dodgers ranked first overall in attendance, frequently selling out a section they typically hadn't even opened up to fans in preceding seasons. "It's just cost certainty," Dodgers' spokesman Josh Rawitch said. "Fans who like to go out there will tell you that's what they go out there for."
Value. Cost certainty. Simplicity. They're themes constantly echoed by many of the 19 teams employing the strategy and celebrating its effectiveness. Each team is selling out areas that were virtually empty before the promotion.
In 2009, the Cleveland Indians sold more than 17,000 seats in the budgeted sections for three games. The Arizona Diamondbacks boosted sales in left field by 70 percent when they made it all-inclusive. For the Astros, the all-you-can-eat section was at about 95 percent capacity. Teams like the Royals have also seen an increase in retail purchases at the stadium as well, as fans are more willing to spend out of pocket for other items when not having to do so with food.
"Fans are looking for value-based items and packages today," said Vic Gregovits, the Indians' senior vice president of sales and marketing. "This package fit. Based on the economy, it makes a lot of sense."
Indeed, the fixed price of the trip to the ballpark is the main selling point for Orioles fans such as Ken Zahn, who has to cope with the medical costs of his 8-year-old son Nate's cerebral palsy. Zahn sees the outing as a chance to treat his son to a special occasion -- and more nachos than he'd ever eat at home.
"You know what? It's a ballpark," Zahn said. "I appreciate people wanting to have healthier options. I get it. [But] this is a ballpark. It's about hot dogs, and it's about peanuts. It's not about salad. It's nice that they offer salad as an option, but we're not really coming here for a salad."
Across America, the shift to healthier options has begun. Nutritionists such as Sandon are still trying to figure out why the ballpark seems to be the last place to experience the shift. Sandon points to a 2008 ADA study concluding that, on the whole, Americans had begun to trend toward healthier foods. The study showed that 40 percent of respondents were "actively seeking information about nutrition and healthy eating," a 4 percent increase from 2002.
But not in ballparks. Despite the success of the all-you-can-eat promotion and the value that goes along with it, it's clear the attitude has yet to take effect.
Said Sandon: "It just goes back to the environment and what is expected when you go to a ballpark. It's a concept we need to change."