NHL Fans & the Growing Concession Problem

Welcome to part three of our summer series looking at different aspects of the NHL fan experience at games. We focused our efforts on season tickets in the first two parts. In case you missed them, you can read about prices here and perks here.

We now look at something that every fan will have a strong opinion on. Tickets are expensive enough. Parking is expensive enough. Merchandise is expensive enough. Most fans have come to understand that’s part of the deal in going to a live game.

So you’re finally in the arena. Now you have to eat and find something to drink. Ah yes. It’s time to evaluate your options at the various concession stands. That’s where this story (and likely your headache) begins.

Almost every venue has a concession prices problem. (Natalie Lutz/Flickr)

The Concession Stand Problem

You get in line. There are at least 20 people ahead of you. So your patience is already starting to wear out. You have your family or friends with you to boot. After 15-20 long, agonizing minutes in the line, it’s finally your turn. You get to the order taker and then the harsh, painful reality sets in.

The cheapest beer on the menu is $10. The cheapest combo meal consisting of a burger, fries and soda is near $20. And that bottle of water that sounded good when you first thought of it? Well that will cost you $5.

Begrudgingly, you move ahead and order anyway because you have to feed your family, right? So four combo meals it is. Four burgers. Four fries. Four drinks. Four $20 bills conceded. In less than a minute, you just spent $80 on something you could have done before the game where you could have paid less than half of that.

Not shockingly, more and more fans are starting to consider their meal options before or after the game while completely skipping the concession stands. You could go to a pregame or postgame dinner out and enjoy better food in a lot of cases and still spend less than you would inside the arena. For many, if it means saving money, they do it.

Now some do not have this option per se. Imagine you are a season ticket holder who works your typical 9-5 job during the week. You leave work but have no time to stop anywhere for a meal because you want to get to the game on time. You have to fight rush hour. You have to find a parking spot. Your only option then might be the concession stand, unless you try to sneak things in.

It seems many fans do still view concessions as an option even if it leaves a significant hole in their wallet. That’s part of the reason why this problem with prices won’t go away anytime soon. Hundreds if not thousands of fans go through lines every game night getting their favorite food and beverages to enjoy while the game is going on. Like it or not, the demand is there. Fans have demonstrated that they are willing to pay crazy prices in a lot of cases. Whether it’s part of the novelty of being at a game or they have more than enough money to cover, the soda and beer is flowing without an end in sight.

Look, imagine it’s the second period in a really good game and all of a sudden, you get hungry or thirsty. Concessions are your only available option in the arena if you want to do something about it. Demand. It’s a very powerful thing.

The Other Side of the Story

We have looked at the fan’s side of things. But there are two sides to every story. From a team perspective, it’s a business and an outlet for additional revenues to come in. Why are prices set sky high?

The surface answer to this is that fans willing to purchase concessions are willing to pay the prices. Teams do constantly evaluate this to see how the market will react. Over the course of a season, teams will review sales and see if they are selling as many or more than before. If so, you’ll likely see a price increase.

For example, if a team sells you a 12 ounce cup of beer and the cost is $9, they will evaluate this to see if they sell as much beer at this price point as they did at a lower one. If so, you might see the price of the same beer the following season at $9.50 or $10.00. Most fans won’t be outraged at an extra $0.50 or a $1.00. But it’s more income for the teams.

Conversely, if sales start to drop off at price points, you won’t see an increase or in rare cases, you might even see a decrease.

Teams can’t go too high or else the item in question won’t sell. So the next time you read a press release from a team that indicates an increase in prices of some sort, there’s a belief that enough fans will buy at that new price point. Teams and analysts have analyzed the data and concluded that they’ll get the same or more in sales with the increase. If it means more cash flow coming in, you can bet teams will opt to go down this route.

This has been the landscape in sports for many years. Don’t expect it to change anytime soon. But it does beg the question is there a different approach that can be taken in order to give fans a break on concessions? Maybe. At least one NFL team is doing something different. Enter the Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons & Fan First Pricing

Think of all the places you’ve seen a game live. Now think of how that compares to what the Atlanta Falcons are doing at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium during games.

Beer for $5. Fries and nachos for $3. Hot dogs, pop and water for $2. This is at every game, not just once or twice a season. Wow. Talk about a refreshing and different approach to the concessions problem. A family of four or more can afford to eat at the game!

This is smart for a couple of reasons. It gives fans incentive to come to more games. It gives fans incentive to make multiple trips to the concession stands because the prices are affordable. It’s a win for fans.

It is also a win for the team. It can lead to more tickets being sold. It can lead to more opportunities to make income in other areas of the business. That’s what I think gets under-reported here. The Falcons could raise prices in other areas (parking, merchandise, tickets etc.) yet fans will still respond to the lower concession prices.

What is my thought on this? I think fans can accept a price hike in other areas. But when they see $5 bottles of water or $20 for a meal it’s an outrage. They’re not wrong. It makes them look for other options. With the Falcons approach, you have to get tickets and you have to park. Fans can deal with those prices. But now you give incentive for fans to eat at your venue. Hello. That’s a huge win.

Honestly, more teams need to see about implementing this kind of approach on a full-time basis. Teams do run different promotions throughout a season. It can be a certain day of the week or some other special. They’ll offer lower prices on those days. But at all other times, it’s business as usual.

New York Islanders Belmont Park Arena
High concession prices will continue to be business as usual until someone else steps up and does something about it. (Courtesy New York Islanders)

In Conclusion

As long as the demand for concessions stays as high as it’s been, don’t expect things to change anytime soon. The income is too important for many teams. But there are ways to make the experience better for fans if they want to pursue them. Just see how the Atlanta Falcons approached this. Their initial sales overall went up.

But at the end of the day, the goal is to get fans to buy from your venue. With so many fans exploring other options outside the arena, it’s time for teams to explore new ideas to make the experience at the concession stand a good one.

Here’s my idea. You already know some fans are willing to pay the higher prices on some items. Still offer those. But let’s start thinking about families and others more. We need to give them a reason to buy.

It’s time to make bottles of water $2 or $3. It’s time to make affordable combo meals a thing. How about a hot dog, popcorn and a small drink for $5? How about a pretzel and a drink for $5? How about a slice of pizza and a soda for $5? Heck, make a whole menu of $5 meal and snack options. This will get more people in line while still offering other options.

Fans often cite high concession prices as one of the biggest grievances they have going to live games. Let’s now do something about it. If it puts more fans in seats, it’s a win-win for all. Lower concession prices will do that. If you take care of the fans, they will take care of you.

The time is now for lower concession prices.