San Francisco 49ers CMO Alex Chang sees fan conversations about concessions at football games going one of two ways.
“If it’s something that you do well, you get credit for it,” Chang said. “If it’s something you don’t do well, you’re going to hear about it.”
To better understand what their season ticket holders wanted, the 49ers would email postgame surveys after every home contest at Levi’s Stadium. After many years of reviewing customer responses, Chang saw that outside of the on-field product, the second-most important determiner if a fan had a good experience was the food and beverage offerings.
Since he and his department can’t control what happens during the game, that inspired them to launch the Member Inclusive Menu.
Set to debut during the 2020 season, the initiative makes the 49ers the first professional sports team to include food and beverage items as a benefit for its season ticket holders. On the Member Inclusive Menu, roughly 70% of the items are the most popular items picked by the fans on game day, said Chang. That number will only continue to grow as the team develops the initiative’s benefits.
As of right now, a sample of the menu features food such as chicken tenders, hot dogs, sausages & hot links, nachos, fries, pretzels, popcorn, and candy. The free beverages will consist of Pepsi products, Aquafina water, Peet’s Coffee, and hot chocolate.
With the Member Inclusive Menu comes a bigger cost for 49ers visitors. Chang said that ticket prices per game will increase by $20 for the 2020 season – but that the organization’s not worried about that deterring current or future members from getting involved. Heading into 2019, the team filled 98% of its season ticket slots – and with the Member Inclusive Menu, he expects more to come next season.
“We know that [the fans are] choosing to invest their time and money with our team and we want to make sure that they get a good return for that investment,” Chang said. “If you listen to them, understand what matters to them and help address those issues and improve those experiences for them, then it creates a positive response.”
While the 49ers’ Member Inclusive Menu is dubbed as being the first of its kind, Chang says that the inspiration behind it came from other NFL teams.
When Mercedes-Benz Stadium – home of the Atlanta Falcons and MLS club Atlanta United – opened in September 2017, there was also a particular emphasis on its food-and-beverage items.
Greg Beadles, chief administrative and financial officer of AMB Sports and Entertainment said the organization wanted the venue to adopt “fan-first” price points in concessions.
Almost immediately, the price cuts began paying dividends for AMBSE. Sales volume rose 50% after the announcement, and more fans began arriving earlier for Falcons games – leading to spikes in pregame food sales and merchandise sales. Along with going 100% cash-free at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, concession lines are now shorter – and fans are buying more during their transactions, said Beadles.
“We really wanted to change the fan experience with food and beverage,” Beadles said. “We had a really big plan to lower pricing, make it more affordable – but not only be focused on the value side of it, but we wanted to improve all aspects of the food and beverage fan experience.”
In March, AMBSE announced that it was slashing the price of five popular items by 11%. Hot dog prices were reduced to $1.50, the “ATL Bud Burger” cost $7.50, and a waffle ice cream come was priced at $4.50, along with other price cuts.
Another team that drove the 49ers to alter their food-and-beverage experience was the Baltimore Ravens. After seeing what the Falcons had done between 2017 and 2019, they saw an opportunity to do something similar, said Baker Koppelman, the Ravens’ senior vice president of ticket sales and operations.
Hearing many more years of complaints rather than compliments, the decision was made to lower the Ravens’ concessions prices, said Koppelman. Starting in the 2018 season, the team’s new “Flock Friendly Fare” initiative lowered prices on 21 popular menu items – with an average drop of 33%. Prices for specific orders – like soft pretzels and french fries – were slashed by up to 53%, and no single item cost more than $9.
Baltimore’s other discounted concessions items included a $3 hot dogs and $6 burgers. Non-alcoholic beverage costs also declined by 39%, along with a 16% reduction in five alcoholic beverages – ranging from domestic draft to packaged beers. M&T Stadium – the Ravens’ home venue – also introduced a $12-ounce domestic beer for $5 – the first time in its history.
“We tend to focus more on creating a great environment – in the stadium – from everything that we do,” Koppelman said. “To see people responding [positively] to [Flock Friendly Fare] makes it worthwhile because that’s the goal. It would’ve been disappointing if we felt like there wasn’t a positive response to it – but from everything, we can tell it’s been noticed and I think people were really happy that we did that.”
While some consider the Member Inclusive Menu unprecedented in its benefits, others are wary of calling it a game changer. Carlos Bernal, president of Sportservice at Delaware North, a hospitality and food management company that owns TD Garden in Boston, knows that the 49ers’ recent innovation has generated media buzz.
When assessing its actual effectiveness, Bernal says that he views the Member Inclusive Menu as a “market basket.” Many different prices are found in a stadium venue’s market basket: tickets, concessions, parking, etc. Taking a holistic view of fan-friendly pricing, he finds that it’s perhaps not as impactful as the media hype suggests.
“I think it’s a great public relations strategy for [sports teams] to do [fan-friendly concessions prices],” Bernal said. “But as we start peeling it back and looking at the market basket of what it costs to go to a game, we don’t see where it has made a material impact in reducing that market basket cost. It’s been great PR, but we’re not seeing a lot of other venues adopt it – so more to come on it if you will.”
The Ravens’ Koppelman isn’t entirely sold on the logistics of the Member Inclusive Menu. He believes that one of the reasons why Mercedes-Benz Stadium was successful in altering its concessions prices coincided with its inception. During development, AMBSE executives wanted the reduced food and beverage prices to align with Mercedes Benz Stadium’s opening.
Koppelman says that other than Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the majority of professional sports venues are creating newer concessions initiatives for stadiums built under different venue models. Banking on fan acceptance is a risky proposition – and one that could, if executed poorly, prove to be inconsequential.
“It’s sort of an individual case as to whether it is gonna work – either logistically or will you get the response that you want to get from a fan?” asked Koppelman. “Even if something’s free, if it’s not logistically handled well, it defeats the purpose. So you have to make sure that it makes sense for your building and it’s something that the fans will see as a positive – and not a negative.”