Author: Alana N. Seaman, PhD
Alana N. Seaman, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina Wilmington
601 South College Road
Wilmington, NC 28403-5956
Dr. Alana Seaman is an Assistant Professor of Recreation, Sports, & Tourism at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her research centers on heritage and tourism particularly as related to sport, food, place, and/or popular culture.
Concessions, traditions, and staying safe: Considering sport, food, and the lasting impact of the Covid-19 pandemic
Food is integral to the culture, infrastructure, and economics of sport. Sport’s unique food traditions engage spectators and athletes alike and facilitate the cultivation of social connections as well as contribute to the game day atmosphere. However, the topic has received little attention from scholars. Regardless, the Covid-19 pandemic has and will continue to disrupt the relationship between sport and food well into the future. This paper provides a review of the scant research available on food and sport and considers how each aspect of sport’s culinary landscape will be affected by Covid-19.
Keywords: Sports & Food, Concessions, Spectator Experience, Fan Experience, Sport Culture
Food holds a special place in sports. Concessions are used to attract fans to minor and professional league stadia and to raise money for youth and club leagues, team dinners promote bonding amongst athletes, and certain food traditions have even become cherished aspects of many sports for both spectators and players alike. While food is integral to the culture, infrastructure, and economics of sport, aside from studies on the links between nutrition and athletic performance, the subject has received little attention from scholars. Regardless, the Covid-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on sport’s culinary landscape. The purpose of this article is to highlight the role of food in sport and to draw attention to the ways in which these relationships may be forever altered in the wake of Covid-19.
For spectators, concessions are an important part of the game day experience. Whether a bag of chips at a youth soccer game or a pimento cheese sandwich at one of America’s most prestigious golf tournaments, food and drink sold and consumed at athletic contests span almost all sports at every level. For youth, high school, and recreational sports teams, leagues, and facilities, concession stands are operated not only to enhance the fan (and players at tournaments) experience, but primarily for the revue they generate (35). Many organizations purchase pre-packaged and easily prepped snack and convenience drink items at local big box warehouse stores to sell at games for a profit with minimal effort. These grassroots concession-based fundraisers are often the main point of financial support for some youth, recreational, and even high school teams; the funds vital in covering the costs associated with travel, uniforms, registration fees, and the like (35).
Professional sport entities have also recognized the profit potential of concessions (42). Some experts contend that concessions represent a main point of game day revenue (26, 42). Thus, great consideration has been put into their success. Many teams set ticket prices to compliment a maximized expenditure at concessions (5, 22), develop specialized infrastructure to serve guests, and use targeted marketing practices built on lessons from the hospitality industry that incorporate food and beverage into promotions (28).
Concessions are also seen as an important component in creating an immersive entertainment environment competitive with, or better than other entertainment alternatives (13, 16, 41). Though exceedingly few studies have explored the concept of concessions at sporting events (18, 25, 41), stadiums of all kinds across the U.S. have invested in developing new menus, hospitality partnerships, and venues in hopes of attracting and engaging spectators (38). While Slavich, Rufer & Greehaigh (39) found that concessions did not motivate attendance at sporting events at least in their examination of Minor League Baseball (MiLB) games, concessions are central to perceptions of service quality; a major factor in satisfaction, intention to return (23), positive attitude toward the host organization, and overall development of fandom (19, 20). Ireland & Watkins (18) found that the availability of food had an impact on spectator game day satisfaction. When not well executed, food and beverage offerings are a potential point of dissatisfaction (30) as not just the food itself but also the food service experience impacts spectator satisfaction (44).
Fans (particularly those of Generation Y) perceive traditional concession offerings as limited, overpriced, low quality, and unhealthy (41); the latter confirmed by research that examined the nutritional value of average stadium foods (31). As expected, most sports spectators have a positive attitude towards higher quality, choices, and healthy options (30). In conjunction with the wave of neolocalism permeating many aspects of the food, beverage, and hospitality and tourism industries, wherein consumers have a developed a renewed interest in local products, experiences, and foods, an array of healthier, high quality, and local options, have been integrated into professional sports venues (38). The National Football League (NFL), National Hockey League (NHL), and Major League Baseball (MLB) most notably have made tremendous efforts to offer unique, high quality, locally reflective, and aesthetically and flavorful outrageous culinary creations to their fans (38). Boston’s Bruins hockey arena, TD Garden boasts clam chowder and gourmet lobster rolls; New Orleans’ Pelican’s basketball home, the Smoothie King Center, offers an array of creole culinary specialties; and Chicago’s Wrigley field, home of the Cubs, even developed “Sheffield’s Counter”, a concession stand where a range of rotating local chefs are invited to showcase their culinary creations for fans a week or so at a time.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, concession staffing and staff training was recognized as a challenge many sports facilities continually dealt with. Charlebois (3) points out that the seasonal nature of sports renders most stadiums and arena staff temporary employees. As a result, high turnover is a perennial problem making adequate training a constantly moving target (3). Further, the rush of customers between on-field bursts of action, period of play, or progression of athletes along a course has always made cleanliness and food safety a precarious endeavor at sporting event concession venues. With many lower level and amateur sports venues also reliant upon volunteers to staff and run concession stands, a myriad of problems may arise in terms of proper training, food safety, and virus protection methods during the Covid-19 pandemic. These factors are no less complicated by state and local public health mandates, restrictions, and food safety guidelines that have been continuously updated since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
Alcohol, Beer, & Special Events
Similar efforts to capitalize on demands and trends in the hospitality industry have seen professional sports venues incorporate breweries into their stadiums. Recognizing the increasing number of breweries opening across the U.S. thanks to widespread deregulation of alcohol laws (12), and the fact that many fans frequently drink at establishments surrounding stadiums and arenas immediately before and after events (7), stakeholders sought to bring those consumer expenditures into the venues themselves. Denver’s Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, opened the first brewery inside an MLB stadium in 1995, since then a swath of other stadiums and arenas have followed suit (27).
Many colleges have also turned to selling beer at on-campus events. In recent years, there has been a drastic increase in number of college athletics programs allowing beer sales in stadiums and arenas to attract fans, develop new revenue streams, and enhance fan experience (29). Chupp, Stephenson, and Taylor (4) however, found no significant increase in fan attendance upon the availability of alcohol in the venue, though that was in 2007, well before selling beer on-campus became the norm. No other research appears to have addressed the sale of beer or alcohol at sporting events, though with the number of organizations utilizing alcohol sales to achieve various goals, the topic is ripe for examination.
Theme nights, perhaps most popular amongst MiLB teams likewise often incorporate food and beverage elements into their pre- and during-game promotions. In 2019 for example, the San Diego Padres hosted a German heritage night complete with refillable growlers; the Nashville Sounds hosted an all-you-can eat taco bar; and some teams regularly lure guests with ‘Christmas in July’ themed events, one even hosting a “meatloaf eating contest” as a tribute to the Seinfeld-created fictional holiday of Festivus (1).
In the age of Covid-19, these crowded scenarios of tightly packed lines at halftime, between periods, and commercial breaks, or gathering in large groups in close quarters with strangers before or during a game whether for beers or bobbleheads at a theme night is almost unfathomable. That is not to say these venues and events which may be particularly well suited for adaptability, many of them featuring outdoor settings that may allow for easy social distancing won’t go on in the future. They certainly will in some fashion, though their tone, atmosphere, and the experiences they render will no doubt be different… at least for the foreseeable future. Gone are the days of refillable containers, buffet-style food options, and eating contests at the game.
Most stadiums, arenas, golf courses, racetracks, and other sports venues also rely on non-game day events and catering revenue to supplement the, often large, overhead of running a facility. With concerns over large potentially superspreading events (9), in mind, it is important to note that many facilities (ranging from municipal to professional) are likely suffering financially as events continue to be postponed or even cancelled all together with little end to the dry spell in sight.
Game Day Atmosphere
In addition to attracting and satisfying fans or financially supplementing venues, both concessions and concessionaires contribute to the overall ambiance of many sporting events. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of stadium foods are an integral part of traditional game day spectator experiences (34). It is widely accepted that tradition is important to fans and participants alike (14). The sight of the array of food and themed concession stand options upon entering a grandstand, the smell of popcorn wafting in the air, the taste of a hot dog topped with a custom combo of toppings from the self-serve condiment bar, and the challenge of eating in the stands are all traditions that make the game day experience special and unique (38). These traditional sensory components elicit powerful emotions and, often, positive feelings of nostalgia (24, 17).
An initial investigation of sports venues currently allowing fans during the Covid-19 pandemic suggests self-serve kiosks of almost every variety have been discontinued to reduce public touch points (11, 36). Instead, fans receive foods in enclosed takeout-style containers accompanied by individually packaged single-use (often plastic) cutlery and several small packets of toppings (11, 36); a practice that will likely become the norm soon. The abundance of caution is admirable, however, the economic, environmental, and fan experience costs of such approaches remains to be seen.
During the Covid-19 pandemic several sports have taken to playing pre-recorded gameday and crowd sounds during contests in the absence of spectators; stakeholders finding an otherwise silent stadium unsettling and unnatural (10). Synonymous with stadium sounds are the calls of vendors hawking soda, snacks, and beer up and down the stands (34, 38). Sadly, it seems unlikely these concessionaires of convenience will return to the gameday scene anytime soon. Even if individuals could be recruited to fill these positions that inherently involve contact with the public, it is almost impossible to imagine passing a hotdog to the center of a row of spectators these days. Several years ago, Sweet (42) suggested that, despite the logistical concerns of timely delivery and accurate order fulfillment, mobile concession purchasing might be the wave of the future at professional sporting events. While few venues appear to have invested in this approach, the method could have merit in the future as a means of eliminating crowded concession counters where the risk of virus transmission might occur. Regardless of how venues adapt, it will be interesting to see, or rather hear, how the game day environment also changes as well as how this might impact fan experiences.
Tailgating, another cherished sport tradition has all but ended. Crowds co-mingling, drinking, and cheering on the home team over potluck dishes of who-knows-what caliber of food safety standards are limited by local lockdowns, mandates, and restrictions on sizes of gatherings (11, 36). Even if the outdoor culinary activities were permitted, social distancing standards and reduced venue capacity would significantly alter the vibrant atmosphere many consider a sacred part of many sports. College football tailgating activities are also widely used as a mechanism for both recruiting new students and maintaining relations with alumni (21), thus the lack of tailgates may have repercussions beyond just fans missing their outdoor autumnal celebrations (6).
Food Traditions Amongst Athletes
Finally, sports’ food traditions extend well beyond what is consumed by fans yet have been no less disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The practice of chewing and spitting sunflower seeds for instance has long been commonplace on the ball diamond from little leagues to the big leagues. The mastery of the tongue-tooth-handsfree seed splitting and shelling is virtually a rite of passage amongst players (45). With the incredible contagiousness of the Covid-19 virus such expulsion of bodily fluids will no doubt be discouraged if not totally banned well into the future (37). Although seemingly insignificant, such traditions lend participants a unique experience that many see as a part of the game (37, 45).
The ritual of the pregame dinner, often the evening before a game, meet, or match, is the hallmark of team bonding from high school cross country teams ‘carb loading’ together at someone’s home to professional ball clubs dining in multi-million-dollar facilities over the sound of inspirational messages from coaches, and are commonplace in all sorts of team sports. However, experts wonder whether these events are, perhaps, the “most dangerous aspect of sports” in the Covid-19 era (33). Team dinners have been identified as being responsible for Covid-19 outbreaks amongst the Notre Dame, Tennessee Titans, and New England Patriots football teams and are suspected to be source of disease’s spread amongst players on the Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies MBL teams (8). Even with social distancing, a hoard of maskless hungry athletes dining together could spell disaster (33). With still relatively little known about the virus causing the Covid-19 pandemic, fears over its aerosol transmission in enclosed spaces persist (32). How will teams adjust? Are outdoor or properly distanced dinners practical for any amateur sports clubs or, with team dinners recognized as hotspots for potential outbreaks, will the tradition simply subside? This may be of concern to coaches and other stakeholders who rely on such traditions to cultivate and sustain team unity.
Though nearly every aspect of sport has been disrupted by Covid-19, food is central to the fabric of sport for athletes, fans, and operators alike, and thus deserves greater attention from scholars both regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. Given the logistical, cultural, economic, and infrastructure implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on an important but poorly understood aspect of sport, interdisciplinary scholars, practitioners, and stakeholders at all levels of sport will need to work together to adjust to the new normal.
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