By Neil deMause
Not long ago, I gave in to my son's pleas and finally took him to a Brooklyn Nets game at the year-and-a-half-old Barclays Center. (He's not a Nets fan -- he's devoted to the Knicks, god help him, and vowed to root against the home team, but all his friends had been going and 5th-grade peer pressure, so.) While we were sitting there in our cheaply obtained StubHub seats high above even the light fixtures, having made our way through the arena's gauntlet of bag searches and metal detectors, he asked one of those questions that make perfect sense to an 11-year-old:
"Why can't people bring beer into the arena, if they sell beer here?"
I immediately launched into an explanation of How Monopolies Work, pointing out that it wasn't that the Nets management didn't want their fans to drink drink beer, they just want them to buy their beer. If I remember right, I may have even used this as an opportunity to deliver a preemptive speech about why I wasn't going to spend $9.75 buying him a small carton of popcorn.
If you're anything like me, the never-ending war over outside food is a constant background noise to your fan experience. As someone who doesn't eat either hot dogs or pulled pork and who prefers to spend his money on tickets to more games rather than on $6.50 slices of reheated pizza, I've resorted to all sorts of subterfuge and Jedi mind tricks to ensure that I don't starve by halftime. (Disclosure: My son snuck into the Nets game with half a bagel sandwich in each pocket. Fortunately they haven't yet invented a metal detector that can scan for cream cheese.) I still remember the sad day that a Madison Square Garden security goon informed me that outside food was now verboten, signaling that a long history of enjoying Knicks' heartbreaking losses while chowing down on shrimp fried rice from the takeout place across the street had come to an end.
This isn't an issue, though, when we go to Major League Baseball games: Both the Mets and Yankees allow fans to bring in outside food with impunity. Given past attempts by teams to use the opening of new stadiums to impose new food rules -- who can forget the Philadelphia Eagles' Hoagiegate? -- I'd feared that my local baseball teams would do the same when they moved into new homes in 2009. I was concerned enough, in fact, that when I spotted a notice that the Mets would allow only "reasonable" outside foodstuffs, I phoned the team's front office, which reassured me that reasonable meant, well, reasonable: "You can bring in a turkey sandwich, but not a whole turkey."
How many other teams follow this policy, and how many treat sandwiches the same as Uzis and Kindles, is a bit hard to tell: No one, it seems, keeps track of stadium food policies, meaning one would have to read through every team's specific security rules to compile a complete list. (And even then, team websites aren't always that helpful: The Los Angeles Angels specify that soft drinks and frozen water bottles are banned but say nothing either way about food.) From my own polling of Twitter and Facebook readers, though, it seems like New York is pretty typical: Nearly all MLB teams allow outside food (though Red Sox fans can't seem to agree on what the Fenway Park rules are, and the official policy only specifies no brooms), NFL teams are split pretty evenly, and NHL and NBA arenas generally treat all independently procured snacks as contraband.
It's a strange disconnect, and one that makes you wonder whether baseball, with its more fan-friendly policies, is leaving money on the table by allowing brown bag lunches. A visit to the Fan Cost Index certainly makes it seem so. While Joe DeLessio makes a good case why the overall Index is a bit silly -- who buys two caps on every visit to a sporting event? -- it's still a useful source of specific info, which includes the average price of hot dogs, beers, and sodas for each pro sport. It's tough to do comparisons between markets -- do the Redskins charge $9 for a beer while the Broncos charge $6.75 because of a difference in monopoly power or in fan wallet sizes? -- but comparisons between sports are relatively easy. And sure enough, the sport with the fewest homemade sandwich bans scores lowest on the jack-up-the-prices-o-meter:
|Beer||Soft Drink||Hot Dog|
That's anywhere from a 10 to 20 percent markup at the food-banning sports. Given that the total concessions revenue for all 30 MLB teams is more than half a billion dollars, this would imply that baseball is leaving anywhere from $50 million to $100 million on the table each year by not confiscating your turkey sandwiches at the door.
There are some possible reasons why baseball could be less likely to crack down on outside food: The games take forever, and are (mostly) outside in the summer heat, and it wouldn't be good p.r. to have fans fainting from hunger and/or thirst. At the same time, baseball teams have a lot more tickets to sell -- more than three million per season in most cases, more than triple that of the other sports leagues -- and so can less afford to say to fans, "Hey, if you don't like it, there's somebody else willing to take your seat who has no qualms about paying through the nose for bottled water."
That doesn't explain, though, why some teams that you'd think wouldn't be in the position of turning away fans for any reason take a hard line on outside food. (The Memphis Grizzlies? The New York Islanders? Seriously?) And at the same time, it's worth noting that several of my social media poll correspondents noted that they didn't expect the laissez faire attitude at their local MLB stadiums to last long.
Part of the problem is, no doubt, that team execs know that whatever they do -- forcing you to carry all your belongings in a clear plastic bag, making you sit behind a wall, selling you $200 tickets to stand outside the stadium and watch a big TV -- most fans will only complain for so long before giving in to sate their sports fix. As USC sports marketing professor David Carter says, "Fans initially complain and then ultimately and fairly quickly adapt without much meaningful resistance whether this has to do with parking problems, tailgating restrictions, or food policies. They have traditionally talked a bigger game than they play, and teams and venue operators are fully aware of this."
Speak for yourself: The Mets can have my bagel when they can pry it from my cold, dead fingers. Unless they somehow make it to the World Series -- in which case, I guess I'd need to buy a coat with bigger pockets.
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Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.