Growing trend: All-you-can-eat sections at big-league parks
More than half of all major-league ballparks offer all all-you-can-eat tickets
Fans appreciate the cost certainty, and it has boosted ticket sales in MLB
Nutritionists aren't big fans of the fad, which they fear encourages binge eating
BALTIMORE -- Matthew Cavalier had a seat in Section 280 for a late June game between the Orioles and Athletics at Camden Yards. But for a good portion of the fourth inning, he chose to watch the game on TV from inside the concourse. That way, he could be closer to the food.
The all-you-can-eat food -- the nachos, hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn, lemonade, sodas and ice cream -- that he was entitled to with the purchase of a ticket in the Orioles' Left Field Club Picnic Perch was that big of a draw.
"It's an easier walk," Cavalier said.
The left-field sections at Camden Yards are part of the growing trend of all-you-can-eat style options in major league ballparks. At a cost of $40 per ticket in the section, fans are entitled to a buffet-style choice that includes all the above-mentioned foods and even salad -- you know, in case you are feeling guilty.
"It's a great deal, especially for the teams that aren't selling out every game," Cavalier said. "The Phillies, Yankees and all them are always going to be fine. They don't need to do this. But for fans of, say, this team, it's a good plan."
The Orioles aren't the only franchise attempting to boost attendance in slacking sections with the promotion. Nineteen of the 30 major league teams offer the all-you-can-eat seats at some games in 2010, up from 13 two years ago and six in 2007.
Knowing many fans like Cavalier will spend more than $40 on a ticket and food, teams target fans like him and lure him with the value of the ticket. And with his penchant for going back for more (Cavalier said he usually eats "double to triple" in the all-you-can-eat seats as he normally does at an Orioles game), he also embodies the concerns of nutritionists and the questions of responsibility that have followed the trend since its inception.
"Well, it's all-you-can-eat," Cavalier said, shrugging. "I figure I might as well take advantage of it."
Blurring the line between value and gluttony is something that worries nutritionists and health professionals about the promotion. "Anytime you have an open buffet, people are more likely to eat more and drink more," said Lona Sandon, a registered dietician and American Dietetic Association national spokesman. "It's perceived as cost-effective. Well, not when it comes to your health."
According to the American Medical Association, nearly 34 percent of all American adults and 17 percent of children are obese. Put in context, these numbers raise the question: Is it socially responsible for teams to set up these all-you-can-eat sections?
Teams say the intention is not for fans to gorge themselves on the food, but many fans say it often comes with the culture of being at the ballpark. Even as Orioles fan Michele Sparklin ate a salad and said she yearned for choices like a grilled chicken wrap, she admitted to overindulging in hot dogs -- and food in general -- while sitting in the section. "When there's a hot dog in your face, you have to take it," she said.
Cavalier walked back to his seat before the bottom half of the fourth inning, third hot dog in not more than 10 minutes in hand.
"I mostly go for the hot dogs," he said. "One good thing about this is that they have cold stuff like ice cream. I've had a bunch of the ice cream. Oh, I tried one thing of salad too, because last year they didn't have a salad.
Tried? "I didn't eat all of it," Cavalier said. "It's nice that they're trying for healthier stuff, but I'm at a ballpark."
Still, while many teams shy away from using overeating as a promotional tool for the sections -- even in some cases shying away from "all-you-can-eat" descriptions -- there are still hints of its endorsement. The Indians promote their section on their website with the opening tagline of, "How much food can you eat?" while offering fans a chance to "test their limitations." An Astros executive made casual reference to hot dog-eating contests among college-aged fans.
Mary Lee, an usher at Camden Yards for 17 years in one of the sections transformed into part of the Picnic Perch, said she's seen more than a few such contests since the Orioles started the promotion in 2007. She remembered one last season most specifically. "There were two kids from Virginia," she said, pointing to the seats she remembered them occupying. "One had eaten 16 hot dogs, and the other wasn't far behind."
A few teams have started to implement healthier options in their ballparks and all-inclusive sections. The Orioles, for one, added salads to the menu this season. Salads are also available in Pittsburgh's PNC Park.
For now, though, healthy food choices are mostly non-existent in these sections. The Padres sell fruit, salad and yogurt at some concession stands in the stadium, but not in their all-inclusive sections. Other teams only say they're looking into the possibility. Aramark, which provides food service for 12 major league teams, said it is "continuously evaluating and refining our menus." Fan feedback is an important step in that process.
Still, Sandon worries that too much is already established in ballpark traditions for fans to choose healthier options, even if they were available.
"It's the concept of culture," Sandon said. "People expect to go to a ballgame and have a hot dog smothered in chili cheese. People choose on taste. What's the tastiest? Even if you weren't hungry when you walked in, it's tough to walk into a ballpark and not get triggered by the aroma of the smell of the hot dogs."
That culture only made the development of the all-inclusive package a natural one in the sports arena.