MLB embraces Big Data to guide sold-out FoodFest

Major League Baseball is bringing Big Data to FoodFest, its traveling event celebrating baseball’s connection with food.

The league completed a sold-out run of the event September 21-22 in New York, part of a three-city tour this year. Like a prior Los Angeles stop in the spring and an initial foray in New York early last year, FoodFest allowed fans to sample one menu item from each of MLB’s 30 ballparks in a single location.

MLB this year has enhanced the event by equipped fans with radio frequency identification (RFID) bracelets. When the bracelets are scanned at each individual team’s booth, a screen makes a drink pairing recommendation from a suite of products made by event presenting sponsor Budweiser.

The bracelets also yield additional troves of data to measure which team’s items are most popular and how frequently fans are lining up at each booth. That information then allows MLB to both manage back-of-house operations for FoodFest more efficiently with the event caterer and team concessionaires, and tweak menu offerings for future tour stops.

“This really helps with a lot of different decision points,” said Barbara McHugh, MLB senior vice president of marketing. “It’s definitely helped with line management, keeping food supplies properly stocked, and making sure in the future we have the right mix, the right balance of offerings for fans out on the floor.”

MLB’s data showed that during the initial day of the New York tour stop, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ churro dog – a churro inside of a doughnut topped frozen yogurt, caramel, chocolate, and whipped cream  – was the most-popular food item. The Diamondbacks were followed, in order, by the Boston Red Sox’ hot lobster roll, the Toronto Blue Jays’ chocolate chip cookie dough, the Washington Nationals’ barbecue tater tots with macaroni and cheese, and the Miami Marlins’ chicken tenders inside of a waffle cone.

The Diamondbacks’ churro dog was one of only four returning items from last year, as the league sought to freshen the mix of food offerings. But its continued popularity has now made it an event mainstay.

MLB’s research-driven focus also extended to social media. Like prior tour stops, the second New York stop of FoodFest is designed in part to attract non-core fans, and encourage them to post photos and other content widely on social media. The league is actively scouring hashtags and other filters to measure fan sentiment.

The league will bring FoodFest to London on October 5-6. The event there will be structured differently as it will not feature all 30 MLB teams. Rather, it will feature the four participants in the 2019-20 London games – the Red Sox, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, and St. Louis Cardinals – and a small mix other marquee MLB teams. 

MLB will also veer from the US economic model for FoodFest in which one ticket price enabled fans to try all 30 food items. In London, food items will be sold on an à la carte basis.

“It’s going to be a little bit of a different model over there,” McHugh said. “And while the events sold out in advance here, it’s going to be more of a walk-up crowd in London.”

FoodFest will definitely be returning in 2020, but future tour stops or event tweaks have not been finalized.

“We have lot of interest from the clubs in bringing this to their respective markets,” McHugh said.