Eating a Way of Luxury

The National Hockey League is a copycat league.

The Anaheim Ducks won a Stanley Cup in 2007 with physical play and line depth. And a few weeks later, Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli sat at a podium with his new head coach Claude Julien, insisting he’d like his team to be “tougher to play against.”

And off the ice it works the same way, not just in hockey, but throughout the sports industry.

In 2007, the Los Angeles Dodgers decided to turn 3,000 right field bleacher seats at Dodger Stadium into the ‘All You Can Eat Pavilion’. For $35 ($40 on game day) fans could stuff themselves with Dodger Dogs, nachos, soda and pretzels to their hearts content. And during that season, the Dodgers sold on average 2,200 of those seats per game, and that’s without mentioning the positive publicity, or the countless YouTube videos of gluttony in action.

“It definitely increases the value of the tickets,” said team spokesperson Drew Merle. “And as someone, say, a family of four looking to come to a game, to do so and not have to worry about paying for concessions, it really is something that is convenient for our fans.”

And from that convenience, copycats have emerged.

Nearly half of Major League Baseball teams had an ‘All You Can Eat’ option in 2008 and now a third of the NHL is on board with the trend. New additions in Atlanta, Nashville and St. Louis have joined the fray to varying degrees. The Predators offer only 250 seats per game, a means of creating a demand. The Blues on the other hand have dedicated four sections to ‘All You Can Eat’, but only do it for selected Tuesday Night games.

In Phoenix, fan interest has driven the Coyotes to bring back their ‘All You Can Eat’ program after initial success in 2007-2008. The team sold-out 400 such seats for a November game against Colorado and unlike clubs that use the promotion to boost ticket demand for less attractive games, the Coyotes use the seats to supplement more attractive dates.

“What were trying to do is create a peak on peak interest,” said Flavil Hampsten, Vice President of Ticket Sales for the Coyotes. “It’s a great game, a great opponent, a great value and our fans really respond to something like that.”

Just to give you some idea of how popular the word of mouth for an ‘All You Can Eat’ seat can be, I was at a party on Saturday Night and a few friends, all of whom split a Celtics Season Ticket package while battling the poverty line, were all asking me where they could get these seats. After all, for them the seats kill two birds with one stone.

The problem is, the Bruins have made their ‘Hungry for Hockey’ program a package deal. Meaning fans looking to lock into the seats must do so on a Season Ticket, or a five-game basis. This for seats in the corner of the building where the opposition shoots twice, or to put it bluntly, some of the least coveted seats at TD Banknorth Garden.

To this point, the response has been overwhelming , so much so that the club will continue to abstain from selling the tickets on a single game basis after selling out the first half of the season. And with the Bruins playing their best hockey in over a decade, selling seats on a single game basis isn’t something that the club will be worrying about.

“We put a lot of priorities on our season ticket holders and these people are committing to us 43 times a year,” said Leigh Castergine, Director of Ticket Sales and Fan Relations for the Bruins. “Because the program is so successful, so simple and has so many benefits, we wanted to give those benefits to our number one clients, which were our Season Ticket holders and our plan holders. “

The Bruins version sells for $39 a game and includes all of the arena basics; hot dogs, sodas, popcorn, pretzels and soft drinks. After entering the arena, fans show their tickets to team representatives outside the specialized concessions area and are then given a bracelet, which allows them to stock up on food prepared buffet style. The one rather obvious drawback is that the special concession stand is a few hundred feet from the seats themselves, but the Bruins were able to do this without affecting any other points of sale in the process.

And while the food is seemingly standard, what isn’t standard for most Bruins fans is that the club is seemingly ready to go down this route. For decades, Bruins owner and Delaware North Companies Chairman Jeremy Jacobs has been viewed by this fan base as a villain of thriftiness on Causeway Street, a combination of Mr. Burns and Uncle Scrooge. So to give away free food, seems rather odd of a shrewd businessman battling a tough sports economy.

Or maybe not…

“It’s great, especially if you have children with you because you’re all set,” said Anne Ziaja of Dracut, who sat in the ‘Hungry for Hockey’ section with her son last night. “Hot dogs, sodas, pretzels, that kind of stuff can all add up, but here you know what you’re going to spend and then you have more money, for something like souvenirs.”

How about souvenirs? Well, it’s no mystery that consumers are more apt to spend if they feel they’re getting a good deal.

The whole idea of ‘All You Can Eat’ is nothing new, but was unheard of outside of the posh comforts of luxury and club seats until the Dodgers brought it into the fold last season. Patrons have come to expect bottomless soft drinks and endless hot dogs while spending premium dollars, but now they can have it in the cheap seats as well.

“Instead of shrimp cocktail, fans are getting popcorn and soda,” said Merle. It’s the same relative concept but with a different audience.”

The seats have drawn criticism from diet and health professionals who believe they represent an easy method of binge eating and poor nutrition. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in three U.S. adults currently tips the scales as obese, so one would imagine that the seats would be a tribute to gluttony. Not so, to this observer’s eyes, as families and others that merely enjoy the convenience of an all inclusive ticket made up a majority of the crowd.

“It’s something that’s fan friendly, family friendly, you walk into the building and don’t have to worry about anything else,” said Castergine. “You have your ticket to the game, you have your food, you’re pretty much streamlined into this one concession stand where everything is waiting for you.”

One of the things you won’t see in any of these ‘All You Can Eat’ sections is alcohol. Not just because arenas understand that selling watered down Budweiser for seven bucks is consumer fraud at its finest, but because sports has already taken dangerous drive down the road of inebriation before.

The most dubious example came in 1974 when the Cleveland Indians decided to hold a ten-cent beer night, a game which ended with riot police on the field and an Indians forfeit. When the team decided to continue the idea later in the season, they put a limit on how many beers could be purchased, four per person. And when American League president Lee McPhail was asked about it, he said, “There was no question that beer played a part in the riot.”

Given recent fan incidents, not including alcohol in the promotion makes the most sense, both for fan safety and the safety of the product on the ice.

But perhaps the most interesting dynamic of the ‘All You Can Eat’ seat still comes down to the bottom line and the impact it has on a team’s Fan Cost Index. As many would argue, the FCI is about as credible as the BCS these days, as it includes the assumption that a family of four would purchase two adjustable hats and two programs, not to mention eat at the arena instead of eating beforehand at a fraction of the price.

Still, the numbers don’t lie. The Bruins rank third in the NHL’s Fan Cost Index at $352.60 per game for a family of four, but if you sit in the ‘All You Can Eat’ seats, the FCI drops to $232, which ranks 27th amongst NHL clubs.

And if you’re the Bruins, or any team for that matter, $232 spent at the arena is better than nothing and a night at home on the couch.

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3 Responses to “Eating a Way of Luxury”

  1. robindingwell
    December 11, 2008 at 2:11 am #

    I guess you’ve never been to a game in Montreal, because if you had you would not have called the NHL a copycat league. Since at least 2001-02, the Habs have had the Club Desjardins seats, located in the 200′s where all food and beverage (except beer) is free. Do a ‘lil more research next time. Cheers.

  2. Jake Duhaime
    January 5, 2009 at 3:23 pm #

    I hate to have to comment here, but I guess you missed this paragraph…

    “The whole idea of ‘All You Can Eat’ is nothing new, but was unheard of outside of the posh comforts of luxury and club seats until the Dodgers brought it into the fold last season. Patrons have come to expect bottomless soft drinks and endless hot dogs while spending premium dollars, but now they can have it in the cheap seats as well.”

    Those seats in Montreal, as you mentioned are club seats at center ice.

  3. alexa
    April 22, 2009 at 2:55 am #

    The only reason Devil fans haven’t crawled out from under their rocks and commented is that up until now, it has been mostly Ranger fans who have seen this post. However, with this post having no real time limit in terms of being current, I’m going to make sure that it gets around – which should induce all kinds of responses.