At ballparks today, you’ll find more than just peanuts and Cracker Jack (although those are, of course, still staples). Sports stadiums across the country are getting creative to expand their appeal and get fans off the couch and into the stands. According to World Atlas, the US is home to over 240 stadiums with a seating capacity of at least 18,000 people or more. That’s a lot of seats to fill, and to do so, stadium operators are turning to strategies and trends that are also proliferating among successful, forward-thinking operators in other segments.
Today’s stadiums are expanding their focus, evolving from places to watch a game to destination-worthy entertainment centers in their own right. From upgrading overall amenities to providing additional entertainment options that guests can engage in, stadium operators are increasingly considering guests’ holistic experience. No longer is the game the only attraction at a sports venue -- a visitor today might encounter an entire museum-worthy art collection (as is the case at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, as well as AT&T Stadium in Dallas), retail complexes, play areas for kids and, of course, improved food offerings.
It’s not unusual to find dishes at a sports stadium that wouldn’t look out of place on the menu at a typical restaurant, and in some cases stadiums are even going the extra yard to menu unique items to help customers feel like they’re getting an exclusive experience. In Datassential’s recent issue of Creative Concepts: Sports Stadiums, we explored some overarching food trends found at sports stadiums today, spotlighting operators that are adapting to better appeal to a customer base with increasingly diverse tastes and dietary preferences.
Hit it out of the park with over-the-top eats
With the advent of social media and viral marketing, oversized foods can be an effective way to grab prospective customers’ attention and get them through the door (or in the case of stadiums, the ticketing gate). Each season, a variety of sports venues whip up whopping dishes designed to challenge adventurous customers. This past baseball season at Globe Life Park in Dallas, the Rangers offered the aptly-named Fowl Pole, a two-pound chicken tender that came with a nest of fries and the customer’s choice of sauce (sriracha ranch, habanero honey mustard, spicy BBQ).
If that’s not over-the-top enough for you, there’s the seven-pound Gridiron Burger from the University of Phoenix Stadium. Introduced for the 2018 NFL season, it featured a laundry list of ingredients: five one-third pound beef patties, five hot dogs, five bratwursts, 20 slices of American cheese, eight slices of bacon, eight chicken tenders, 12 ounces of fries, lettuce, pickles and tanker sauce (equal parts mayo and BBQ sauce). Those who managed to devour the whole thing in under an hour were rewarded with an Arizona Cardinals jersey and had their photo displayed on the scoreboard, a little extra incentive to get visitors to step up to the plate and take on the challenge.
According to our data, nearly 30% of consumers would be up for tackling the Gridiron Burger challenge, demonstrating that you don’t always have to leverage new ingredients to generate buzz -- just take something consumers are already familiar with and put a supersized spin on it. And the trend doesn’t have to apply to just savory items, either. New York’s KeyBank Center has in the past offered a Cotton Candy Waffle Cone starring a giant swirl of soft serve in a cotton-candy wrapped waffle cone, all sprinkled with Pop Rocks! for nostalgic flair.
Celebrate the home team
According to Datassential FLAVOR, 57% of consumers love or like locally sourced foods, so it should be no surprise that they also want to see local ingredients and dishes at sports stadiums. Some items found at concession stands might feature local or regional specialties, like the Po’Man at Progressive Field in Cleveland, which nods to the city’s German heritage and stars a smoked Polish kielbasa with two cheese and potato pierogies, sauerkraut, and German-style mustard.
Other menu offerings might encourage home team spirit, like those found at Las Vegas Ballpark. The Flight Deck burgers served at the baseball stadium are branded with the logo of the Las Vegas Aviators, and fans can also get alcoholic beverages served in branded, glowing souvenir cans.
Another way stadium operators are bringing local flair to the menu is by partnering with chefs from popular restaurants in the area. According to Creative Concepts: Sports Stadiums, over half of consumers are interested in trying dishes from local restaurants. Both of Chicago’s MLB stadiums, Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, have tapped into well-known operators in the city such as Antique Taco and Fat Rice to provide gourmet stadium eats like chicken al pastor tacos and chili sambal waffle fries. Similarly, Citi Field in New York City features foods from small independent vendors like Pizza Cupcake and Destination Dumplings (yep, you read that right -- dumplings at a sports stadium).
Draft healthy choices
Most people likely picture high-calorie burgers, fries or hot dogs when they think of stadium foods, but with more consumers looking to eat healthier (nearly 60% say they need to eat a healthier diet, according to our 2019 The New Healthy Keynote Report), there’s an increasing expectation for operators in all segments, including sports stadiums, to offer foods that can help them achieve that goal.
Still, different consumers have different goals and ideas of what it means to “eat healthy,” so stadium concession operators are doing their best to appeal to a broader definition of healthy. This means offering not just vegan and vegetarian options, as Dignity Health Sports Park in Los Angeles does (it menus plant-based foods like vegetarian poke bowls and the Impossible Burger), but also foods that appeal to specific diets, like the gluten-free hot dogs, nachos and tacos available at Chase Field in Phoenix.
Up your game no matter what team you’re on
Regardless of the segment you operate in, many of the trends found at sports stadiums can be applicable to your business. Consider the fact that sports concession operators often have extremely limited kitchen space and equipment to work with, even moreso than your typical restaurant operator. Despite that, sports fans today can still find on-trend menu items, from plant-based foods to local chef-driven offerings, demonstrating these trends are far-reaching and can be adapted by operators across the industry.
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- Today’s more veggies, less meat culture: What’s behind the momentum into the mainstream?
- Here’s what healthy means now
Sherry Tseng is the publications specialist at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis, and concept testing for the food industry. To purchase Creative Concepts: Sports Stadiums, contact Datassential managing director Brian Darr at email@example.com.
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