The Boyfriend Finds Himself in Deep Deux-Deux: Ballpark Food II

(Guest post by The Boyfriend)

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about the culinary adventures that Julie and I had during visits to two Major League Baseball parks this summer:  PNC Park in Pittsburgh and Nationals Park in Washington, DC.

Both parks are relatively new.  Nationals Park opened just last year.  PNC Park opened in 2001, making it two years older than Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

Both are parks where management have re-thought the ballpark food paradigm and are following the current trend of offering fans more food choices than the traditional ballpark fare of  hot dogs, beer, popcorn, pretzels, soda, ice cream, pizza, etc.  Both parks offer fans a seemingly endless variety of food options.  Though PNC and Nationals Parks are home to some pretty bad baseball teams (see the italicized section below), both parks drew large crowds on the nights we were there.  More significantly to this post, most of the food concessions areas around the parks had long lines before the game and well into the later innings of the game.  The quality of the food in both parks was very good, and customers seemed genuinely happy with the choices, food quality, and service.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, as Julie and I left PNC Park, we wondered:  Why can’t we have this in Cincinnati?

Great American in Cincinnati is probably my favorite Major League ballpark.  Since I’m a Reds season-package buyer, it also happens to be the park where I see far more games than  any other.  The park is beautifully designed.  It’s deceptively large.  It has a cozy feel.  The upper levels of the park offer a beautiful view of the Ohio River.  Though it’s only six years old, the park has been updated and improved regularly; the new high-definition scoreboards on the upper and field levels are second to none that I’ve seen.  It’s a great place to watch a baseball game.

But as Julie noted in a post from early last season, the food concessions services at GABP leave much to be desired.

First, let’s talk about variety and options.  Let the photos from GABP speak for themselves.

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Pretty traditional, right?

The only nontraditional items I’ve found at GABP are Montgomery Inn pulled-pork and pulled-chicken sandwiches (essentially the same stuff available in tubs at local grocers), Skyline cheese coneys (not bad…pretty much what you get in Skyline restaurants), and Penn Station cheesesteaks with fries (for my money, the best choice in the park, especially since the fries are fresh cut).

If park management opts to offer fans mainly traditional fare, fine.  But at least make sure that the traditional fare is good.  The hot dogs sold at GABP are essentially flavorless.  The various sausages (e.g., the Big Red Smokey) are a bit better, but not markedly so.   The “steak burger” I had a couple of months back was also bland and overcooked to the point of being almost inedible (since I bought the sandwich in the later innings of the game, I suspect that the patty had been warming on the grill for some time).

It’s rare that I see significant lines at GABP concession stands, even five minutes before game time.

My food routine at GABP has evolved (or devolved) of late into the following:  (1) Pick up a bag of cheaper-outside-the-park peanuts.  (2) Wash down aforementioned peanuts with a beer.  (3) Make myself a sandwich when I get home.

If GABP management were to re-think the food options–and, in fact, the whole mindset and approach to food–they might improve attendance.  Don’t laugh…I’ve known a lot of people through the years who are not baseball fans, but who attend games regularly, just to get out of the house on a nice summer evening.   As I mentioned earlier, the Nationals and Pirates have worse records than the Reds.  (In fact, the Pirates, by losing their 82nd game this past week, assured themselves of a seventeenth consecutive losing season…an all-time record for major sports franchises in any sport.) Yet both Nationals and PNC Parks had huge crowds on the nights we were there.  And significant lines existed at concession stands around each park.

It’s important for all MLB teams nowadays to do whatever they can to increase their bottom lines, but it’s crucial for the Reds to do so…more so than for most teams.

Why?

A quick primer in the economics of Major League Baseball…

(If you’re a baseball fan, you know all of this stuff already.  If you’re not a baseball fan, this stuff will put you to sleep faster than a Barbara Walters interview with Cher, so I’ll try to keep it short.  In either case, feel free to scroll past the following italicized section.  Really.  It’s OK.  I’ll meet you on the other side.)

Major League Baseball teams are divided into the haves, the have-somes, the have-mores, and the have-nots.  The Reds are among the have-nots; they are what’s commonly called a “small market” team.  Small market teams are at a competitive disadvantage on the field because they are at a competitive disadvantage in the checking account.

Major League Baseball has no meaningful system of sharing wealth among teams.  Teams are free to spend whatever amount of money they can raise and think they can afford.  Teams generate only 15 percent of their revenues nationally (primarily through league TV and merchandising contracts).  Teams raise 85 percent of their total revenues locally:  tickets, parking, souvenirs, concessions, ballpark advertising revenues (including the ads that now appear in the restrooms…is nothing sacred anymore?), and local TV and radio contracts.

(The National Football League, by contrast, generates most of its money nationally and distributes the league’s wealth evenly–more or less–among all teams.  This is known in the business as “revenue sharing”.  The NFL also employs something called a salary cap [actually, “payroll cap” would be a more accurate label] to restrict what teams spend on total player salaries.  Teams have an incentive to spend their allotted salary funds wisely.  The salary cap is in place to ensure that teams from large markets [larger cities] don’t have a competitive advantage due to deeper pockets and an automatic edge in signing the best players available.

One of the most storied franchises in NFL history is the Green Bay Packers.  The Packers have won a total of twelve NFL championships, including three Super Bowls.  Green Bay, Wisconsin, in terms of population, is about one-sixteenth the size of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Tristate area.  Because of the NFL’s business model, the Packers can compete quite well against the rest of the league.  The mere thought of putting a Major League Baseball team in Green Bay, Wisconsin is laughable.)

As with everything else in life, you get what you pay for.

At the beginning of the season, the New York Yankees (in a special category known as the “have-mosts”) had a total player payroll of $201.5 million for the 2009 season.  The Yankees have the best record in MLB.  The Reds, by contrast, had an initial total payroll of $73.5 million…approximately one third the size of the Yankee payroll.   (In fact, the Yankees are paying $75 million this year for three players.)  Of the total Reds payroll, 56 percent went to only five  players: pitchers Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang, and Francisco Cordero, second baseman Brandon Phillips, and shortstop Alex Gonzalez (now playing for the Boston Red Sox, another “large market” team).

The three last-place teams in the National League–the Nationals, Pirates, and Padres–rank 27th, 28th, and 29th respectively in total payroll among the thirty MLB teams.  Having a large payroll, of course, doesn’t guarantee success on the field.  The New York Mets, for example, have a losing record this season, despite having the second-largest MLB payroll. But small-market teams operating with extremely low payrolls have little chance of competing against large-market teams.

OK.  I lied.  I didn’t keep it so short, after all.  If you’re interested in learning more about the total screwed-up-ness of MLB economics, pick up a copy of Bob Costas’ 2001 book Fair Ball:  A Fan’s Case for Baseball.  The book was written eight years ago, but virtually nothing has changed on MLB’s economic landscape since the book first appeared.

I’m back.  Did you miss me?  If you managed to read the entire italicized section, I thank you for indulging my long-thwarted dream of being a sports writer.

The bottom line:  It’s important for all MLB teams to maximize their ballpark revenues, but it’s crucial for the Reds.

It seems that a huge majority of MLB teams are re-thinking their food concessions.  The New York Mets and the New York Yankees have long had what was widely regarded as the worst food in the Majors.  I saw dozens of games at the old Yankee Stadium and at Shea Stadium.  Trust me.  The food was awful. But both the Yankees and the Mets, both in new ballparks this year, have embraced the new trend.

Am I suggesting that if the Reds sold yummier hot dogs, they would find themselves in the World Series next year?  Of course not.  That would be silly.  (But hot, fresh onion rings?  That’s another matter.  Just kidding.)

But at the least, especially in today’s economy, fans expect (and deserve) top-notch food choices at the ballpark.