- NFL team’s ‘Member Inclusive Menu’ is designed to “create frictionless game-day experience”
- Season ticket prices to increase by 13 per cent on average to help cover costs of initiative
- Executives working out how best to serve fans with expected uptick in food and drink sales
Two years ago, the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons kickstarted a revolution in the sports stadium concessions model in the United States by introducing the “Fan-First Pricing” program to accompany the opening of the $1.6bn Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The menu offered by far the lowest prices of food and beverages at any major league venue in the US, including unlimited Coca-Cola for $2, as well as a bottle of water, popcorn, hot dogs and pretzels for $2 including taxes. The initiative has proven so popular and so successful that it has since been replicated by many other teams, including the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens.
Now, the San Francisco 49ers have put their own twist on this strategy in their effort to improve the game-day experience and improve value for fans by introducing the novel “Member Inclusive Menu.” The new structure, beginning with the 2020 season, gives season-ticket holders unlimited access to more than 15 of the most popular food and non-alcoholic beverage items at Levi’s Stadium.
Offering all-inclusive food and drink at sports stadiums itself is not new as a concept. It is generally made available to suite holders and fans with premium seats, and has existed for those higher-spending patrons for many years. But the 49ers are taking the model to a completely new level by making it available to almost 90 per cent of the fanbase. Season-ticket holders represent approximately 60,000 seats at the 68,500-seat facility.
“The model they have in Atlanta is a great model and it’s rooted in the same intent, which is proving great value for their fans,” San Francisco 49ers chief marketing officer Alex Chang tells SportBusiness. “We felt like [putting] food and beverage in the price of the ticket up front…creates an even more frictionless game-day experience.”
Food options include stadium mainstays such as chicken tenders, hot dogs (beef and vegan), sausages and hot links, nachos (regular and loaded), fries (regular and garlic), pretzels, popcorn, peanuts, and candies. The drink options are: Pepsi products, Aquafina water, Peet’s Coffee, and hot chocolate. More items are expected to be added as the 2020 season approaches.
High-end food options and alcoholic beverages, meanwhile, are excluded from the deal.
The “Member Inclusive Menu,” curated in partnership with 49ers concessionaire Levy Restaurants and their technology and analytics company E15 Group, is also only available to season ticket holders. Single-game or secondary market ticket buyers will continue to purchase food and beverages on an à la carte basis.
To help to fund this initiative, as well as other improvements at Levi’s Stadium, season ticket prices will increase next year by an average of 13 percent. This works out on average as an extra $20 per game, or $200 total for eight regular season and two preseason games, in a 10-game season ticket package.
According to leading sports and entertainment facilities publication VenuesNow, fans spend between $12 to $16 on concessions at NFL games without alcohol, with an increase of $8-10 with the purchase of beer, hard liquor, and wine.
The 49ers are confident that the initiative will not only prove popular with its fans but could possibly be replicated in many other stadiums, both in the US and globally.
“We’re hopeful that it does create a bit of a template or model for others to follow,” Chang adds. “What we’re doing and what they are doing in Atlanta is philosophically very much aligned. It’s ‘how do you create great value for your fans?’ How you do it can very differently from building to building.”
Steps to create an innovative model
Before the new concessions strategy, the 49ers had long sought to be on the cutting edge of fan experience management in the US. Among their efforts to that end was the creation of their “Executive Huddle” venue-management platform during the 2018 season, which pulls data from nine streams – including attendance, parking, food and beverage, retail, ticketing, and social media – and allows teams executives to visualize every aspect of stadium operation and respond to issues or opportunities in real time.
And it was this focus on data and analytics, and visualizing that data to make it more understandable and actionable, that directly led to the creation of the “Member Inclusive Menu.”
Based on extensive fan feedback, the 49ers knew that food and drink experience was one of the team’s key drivers for fan satisfaction.
“We are always looking for ways to make that better for people, whether that be additional food options, giving options for people who have special food preferences, looking at food quality and food value. This is something that is always top of mind for us as we’re thinking about the whole game-day experience for our fans,” Chang says.
At the same time as the 49ers were looking to improve this experience, the team were making plans to increase the price of season tickets for the first time since Levi’s Stadium opened in 2014. “It was time to make an adjustment,” Chang says, “based on secondary-market demand, based on our own observations of dynamic pricing, we knew that we had to adjust pricing to make sure that we were in line to what the market was saying.”
The team then wanted to see if it was possible to combine the two efforts. A significant amount of research, via focus groups and surveys, was undertaken to help answer three key questions. First, was there fan interest in having food and beverages included as part of their season ticket packages? Second, what items would they like to be included in this program, if it were to happen? And third, how much extra they would be willing to pay to have unlimited concessions as part of their season ticket membership?
Satisfied with the feedback they received during that canvassing, the 49ers announced the “Member Inclusive Menu” earlier this month.
“It’s not a two-step process. It’s not a [process of] change pricing, therefore let’s find benefit,” Chang notes. “It’s taking all the variables into account and then find the right pricing for the fans.”
Logistical and operational challenges
The 49ers and Levy Restaurants are now going through the process of trying to make the model work logistically and operationally, a feat made all the more difficult as there is no precedent to fall back on.
“The concept [of unlimited food and drink] has always been there but executing on it at this scale is, as far as we are aware, never been done before, certainly in the US in any of the other professional sports and we believe globally,” Chang says.
There is an obvious expectation that with unlimited food and drink options becoming available there will be an uptick in consumption initially, though by exactly much is thus far unknown. “We need to understand consumption and predict consumption by product and product type. That is really important. We definitely have to forecast for [an uptick in sales] so we have to meet the demand of our fans,” Chang says.
The 49ers are also considering redesigning certain aspects of Levi’s Stadium and its concessions stands to ensure that waiting lines are not too long. This includes determining how best for both season-ticket holders and non-season ticket holders to get their items, such as separate lines at concessions stands, or entire separate concessions stands just for non-season ticket holders.
“We don’t want to neglect the other 10 per cent who will be paying for things à la carte and make sure they have a good experience as well,” Chang says.
Moreover, the 49ers must calculate how best for season-ticket holders to quickly and securely identity themselves to take part in the initiative and get their items quickly. This could include technology currently on season ticket passes which are generally worn around necks, mobile devices, or other physical items such as wristbands.
There will also be as-yet-unannounced limits on how many items that season ticket holders can acquire in each visit to a concessions stand to speed up waiting times and cut down on food waste and abuse of the system.
Some pilot testing will be done towards the end of the 2019 season to help understand logistically what the experience is like for fans. “But frankly as it’s never been done before we’ll have to learn as we go,” Chang says. “We’ll have to adjust in real time in the course of the season and realize that some items are more popular than others and we’ll have to adjust our quantities.”
Chang believes that there will still be a demand for specialty items, many of which are supplied by local vendors. “I think there is enough variety that there will be adequate demand for everything we have in the building but it’s certainly something we’ll keep a keen eye on,” he says.
The team has also been in regular contact with the NFL about this initiative, in large part to keep the league informed of its progress. “They were helpful in being a sounding board and asking some questions that let us think it through a little bit,” Chang says. “And we’ll certainly be keeping close touch with them as we go into next season so they can garner learnings that can be leveraged for the 31 other clubs in the league.”