Eat Up! Here’s Why Fans Can Expect Continued Concession Innovation and Lower Prices

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Photo via the Atlanta Hawks

As teams compete for attention in a world of increased entertainment options, they’re turning to concessions to help add to the experience of games.

This NBA season, for example, the Atlanta Hawks unleashed a massive rework of its concession options, including plentiful local options and fan-friendly pricing, including $5 beers, $3 hot dogs, $4 bottomless popcorn and much more.  

“Our industry has always looked at food and beverage as, ‘We have a captive audience; let’s just feed them general concession foods,’” said Brett Stefansson, Hawks EVP and general manager of State Farm Arena. “People now consume product so much differently; it’s no longer just a Hawks game. It’s about a night out. It all revolves around the overall experience and includes food, drinks, and friends.”

Atlanta is certainly a hub of concession innovation with the home of the Atlanta Falcons and MLS-champion Atlanta United FC setting the standard, Stefansson said when discussing Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He also mentioned the Master’s Tournament at nearby Augusta National as the true driver of fan-friendly prices.

Some guests will still want the classic hot dog, nachos and beer, but others demand more. Others want fresher, higher-quality foods with imagination and a more restaurant-like feel.

READ MORE: What the Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena Gain from Reduced Concession Prices

Concession consultant Chris Bigelow said teams are getting more creative and involved in the food and beverage offerings to ensure fans are attracted regularly for the lengthy seasons of professional sports and an ever-increasing ticket price.

“I don’t think there’s any one single factor going into it, but it’s going to continue as teams asking ‘what can we do to make fans happier?’” Bigelow said.

At State Farm Arena, the Hawks were thinking 18 months in advance during renovations what their concession plan would be. They called on architects to make spaces appear more “chef-driven” than a sports arena and rounded up an array of local restaurants, such as lauded B’s Cracklin’ BBQ, Gio’s Italian Grill, Old Lady Gang, and Zac Brown Social Club. The Hawks also hired Joe Schafer as executive chef from Atlanta’s James Beard award-winning Bacchanalia.

The Hawks work hand-in-hand with their concessions partner, Levy Restaurants, and opt for as much control as possible, which can lead to less profit margin, but better quality and service, Stefansson said.

Stefansson said he’s been on calls with other NBA teams that are increasingly gravitating toward food and beverage. Likewise, he’s beginning to see interest in the subject from NHL management peers. Baseball has been a leader in experimenting with interesting and “extreme” concessions.

Fan-friendly pricing, which started in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is now spanning across the NFL, Bigelow said. Other leagues, however, don’t have as easy of a choice with the pricing.

“Primarily, the reason the NFL can do it is the revenue sources and stadiums being a small portion because of network contracts,” he said. “Other sports — baseball, in particular — needs that food and beverage and other in-stadium revenue.”

Fan-friendly pricing is, however, on the mind of everyone, Stefansson said. For a family of six to spend $10 a hot dog is ridiculous, Stefansson said, knowing people are watching their wallets.

“You feel like you’re in their pocket and beating them up,” he said. “Do the right thing for the fan. There’s a good balance.”

Despite the outward appearance of higher quality, ESPN recently ran a report about the questionable sanitation of concession stands. The Hawks’ State Farm Arena ranked No. 2 overall, behind Oracle Arena. Bigelow said those rankings are an annual thorn, but the discrepancies between standards in the various communities are large. 

READ MORE: Seahawks Set the Standard for Concession Ingenuity at CenturyLink Field

“There’s no standard health code, so one venue might get high marks in one, and might get low marks in a different jurisdiction,” he said. “A lot goes into it, but concessionaires all agree they have to put more effort into monitoring. The more variety and local vendors, the tougher it is to monitor.”

Outside of the actual food products, Stefansson said concessions will trend toward integrating more technology.

“Nothing super bold, but a lot of people are dipping their toes in,” he said. “We’ll see that push and what that means for quick and easy service. How fast can we get people through the lines and back to their seats?”

Likewise, Bigelow thinks technology will continue to be the driver in concession changes moving forward into 2019.

“Everyone is trying to figure out labor shortages and how they can do more with less, or save payroll,” he said. “There will be more experimentation on methods to improve service and efficiency.”