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Growing trend: All-you-can-eat sections at big-league parks

Matthew Cavalier had a seat in Section 280 for a late June game between the Orioles and Athletics at Camden Yards. But for a good portion of the fourth inning, he chose to watch the game on TV from inside the concourse. That way, he could be closer to the food.

The all-you-can-eat food -- the nachos, hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn, lemonade, sodas and ice cream -- that he was entitled to with the purchase of a ticket in the Orioles' Left Field Club Picnic Perch was that big of a draw.

"It's an easier walk," Cavalier said.

The left-field sections at Camden Yards are part of the growing trend of all-you-can-eat style options in major league ballparks. At a cost of $40 per ticket in the section, fans are entitled to a buffet-style choice that includes all the above-mentioned foods and even salad -- you know, in case you are feeling guilty.

"It's a great deal, especially for the teams that aren't selling out every game," Cavalier said. "The Phillies, Yankees and all them are always going to be fine. They don't need to do this. But for fans of, say, this team, it's a good plan."

The Orioles aren't the only franchise attempting to boost attendance in slacking sections with the promotion. Nineteen of the 30 major league teams offer the all-you-can-eat seats at some games in 2010, up from 13 two years ago and six in 2007.

Knowing many fans like Cavalier will spend more than $40 on a ticket and food, teams target fans like him and lure him with the value of the ticket. And with his penchant for going back for more (Cavalier said he usually eats "double to triple" in the all-you-can-eat seats as he normally does at an Orioles game), he also embodies the concerns of nutritionists and the questions of responsibility that have followed the trend since its inception.

"Well, it's all-you-can-eat," Cavalier said, shrugging. "I figure I might as well take advantage of it."

Blurring the line between value and gluttony is something that worries nutritionists and health professionals about the promotion. "Anytime you have an open buffet, people are more likely to eat more and drink more," said Lona Sandon, a registered dietician and American Dietetic Association national spokesman. "It's perceived as cost-effective. Well, not when it comes to your health."

INTERACTIVE: Pick from the best stadium foods from across the major leagues with our All-Star Ballpark Menu

According to the American Medical Association, nearly 34 percent of all American adults and 17 percent of children are obese. Put in context, these numbers raise the question: Is it socially responsible for teams to set up these all-you-can-eat sections?

Teams say the intention is not for fans to gorge themselves on the food, but many fans say it often comes with the culture of being at the ballpark. Even as Orioles fan Michele Sparklin ate a salad and said she yearned for choices like a grilled chicken wrap, she admitted to overindulging in hot dogs -- and food in general -- while sitting in the section. "When there's a hot dog in your face, you have to take it," she said.

Cavalier walked back to his seat before the bottom half of the fourth inning, third hot dog in not more than 10 minutes in hand.

"I mostly go for the hot dogs," he said. "One good thing about this is that they have cold stuff like ice cream. I've had a bunch of the ice cream. Oh, I tried one thing of salad too, because last year they didn't have a salad.

Tried? "I didn't eat all of it," Cavalier said. "It's nice that they're trying for healthier stuff, but I'm at a ballpark."

Still, while many teams shy away from using overeating as a promotional tool for the sections -- even in some cases shying away from "all-you-can-eat" descriptions -- there are still hints of its endorsement. The Indians promote their section on their website with the opening tagline of, "How much food can you eat?" while offering fans a chance to "test their limitations." An Astros executive made casual reference to hot dog-eating contests among college-aged fans.

Mary Lee, an usher at Camden Yards for 17 years in one of the sections transformed into part of the Picnic Perch, said she's seen more than a few such contests since the Orioles started the promotion in 2007. She remembered one last season most specifically. "There were two kids from Virginia," she said, pointing to the seats she remembered them occupying. "One had eaten 16 hot dogs, and the other wasn't far behind."

A few teams have started to implement healthier options in their ballparks and all-inclusive sections. The Orioles, for one, added salads to the menu this season. Salads are also available in Pittsburgh's PNC Park.

For now, though, healthy food choices are mostly non-existent in these sections. The Padres sell fruit, salad and yogurt at some concession stands in the stadium, but not in their all-inclusive sections. Other teams only say they're looking into the possibility. Aramark, which provides food service for 12 major league teams, said it is "continuously evaluating and refining our menus." Fan feedback is an important step in that process.

Still, Sandon worries that too much is already established in ballpark traditions for fans to choose healthier options, even if they were available.

"It's the concept of culture," Sandon said. "People expect to go to a ballgame and have a hot dog smothered in chili cheese. People choose on taste. What's the tastiest? Even if you weren't hungry when you walked in, it's tough to walk into a ballpark and not get triggered by the aroma of the smell of the hot dogs."

That culture only made the development of the all-inclusive package a natural one in the sports arena.

As part of the sales team of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999, then-fledgling executives Chad Estis and Brent Stehlik were part of the unit tasked with what they both called the "hardest job in sports."

Tampa Bay was the worst team in NHL history. It was in the midst of four straight 50-loss seasons, becoming the first team in league history to ever do so. In 1997 Forbes magazine ranked it as the worst professional sports franchise economically, reporting the team had accrued a debt equal to an astounding 236 percent of its value.

"We were a last-place hockey team, and a historically bad last-place team at that, in a warm-weather market," Estis said. "Straight up, selling a Lightning season ticket was almost impossible to do at the time. So we would brainstorm ways to have a better opportunity to sell season tickets."

Estis' solution was what would evolve into today's all-you-can-eat options. He helped create a high-end, all-inclusive club in one of the underutilized end zones of the St. Pete Times Forum, then known as the Ice Palace. A huge risk, the renovation to the arena and building of the club cost what Stehlik said was more than $1 million.

Estis, Stehlik and the Lightning's sales team sold the XO Club as a different way to take in a hockey game. Everything was included in the package, even alcohol. The club was catered to corporate clients and large company groups. It was a model -- the all-inclusive experience -- that was fairly common in the service industry but foreign to the sports industry. Estis said the franchise sold out the majority of the club: 500 buyers purchased season tickets.

Estis moved on to the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers in 2001, where he helped bring about two similar concepts of equal success. Even before LeBron James would join the Cavaliers, the team sold out those premium sections. He continued this philosophy with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, with whom he is currently the senior vice president of sales and booking.

Stehlik, now with the San Diego Padres, went from the Lightning to become the COO of the Double A Frisco RoughRiders, a team in the highly competitive Dallas market. Stehlik estimates that around 90 percent of the team's seats in Dr Pepper Ballpark have some sort of all-inclusive package attached to them. In its inaugural season in 2003, the franchise ranked fourth in the minor leagues in attendance, selling out 53 games.

"When we started it, we did it as a way to differentiate our offers," said Steve DeLay, the CMO of Mandalay Baseball Properties, which owns the RoughRiders and five other minor league teams. "What we wanted to do was go in the direction of added value and give fans something they couldn't refuse.

"We wanted to create an offer that makes fans say, 'I'm in.'"

For Michele and John Sparklin of Cockeysville, Md., the seats are the place to get the most value out of their usual couple of trips to the park each year. "It's nice, because everything is overpriced in ballparks," Michele Sparklin said. "You look at the hot dogs, and they're $5. You look at the sodas, they're $6. You even look at the pretzels, and they're so overpriced. It's good that you don't have to deal with any of that."

The theme of value is a common one that spread quickly through baseball. The Dodgers were the first, and perhaps the highest-profile franchise, to implement all-you-can-eat seats. They were second in attendance in 2006, the year before the franchise decided to try to boost its attendance even more in a 3,300-seat right-field pavilion.

It worked. By 2009 the Dodgers ranked first overall in attendance, frequently selling out a section they typically hadn't even opened up to fans in preceding seasons. "It's just cost certainty," Dodgers' spokesman Josh Rawitch said. "Fans who like to go out there will tell you that's what they go out there for."

Value. Cost certainty. Simplicity. They're themes constantly echoed by many of the 19 teams employing the strategy and celebrating its effectiveness. Each team is selling out areas that were virtually empty before the promotion.

In 2009, the Cleveland Indians sold more than 17,000 seats in the budgeted sections for three games. The Arizona Diamondbacks boosted sales in left field by 70 percent when they made it all-inclusive. For the Astros, the all-you-can-eat section was at about 95 percent capacity. Teams like the Royals have also seen an increase in retail purchases at the stadium as well, as fans are more willing to spend out of pocket for other items when not having to do so with food.

"Fans are looking for value-based items and packages today," said Vic Gregovits, the Indians' senior vice president of sales and marketing. "This package fit. Based on the economy, it makes a lot of sense."

Indeed, the fixed price of the trip to the ballpark is the main selling point for Orioles fans such as Ken Zahn, who has to cope with the medical costs of his 8-year-old son Nate'scerebral palsy. Zahn sees the outing as a chance to treat his son to a special occasion -- and more nachos than he'd ever eat at home.

"You know what? It's a ballpark," Zahn said. "I appreciate people wanting to have healthier options. I get it. [But] this is a ballpark. It's about hot dogs, and it's about peanuts. It's not about salad. It's nice that they offer salad as an option, but we're not really coming here for a salad."

Across America, the shift to healthier options has begun. Nutritionists such as Sandon are still trying to figure out why the ballpark seems to be the last place to experience the shift. Sandon points to a 2008 ADA study concluding that, on the whole, Americans had begun to trend toward healthier foods. The study showed that 40 percent of respondents were "actively seeking information about nutrition and healthy eating," a 4 percent increase from 2002.

But not in ballparks. Despite the success of the all-you-can-eat promotion and the value that goes along with it, it's clear the attitude has yet to take effect.

Said Sandon: "It just goes back to the environment and what is expected when you go to a ballpark. It's a concept we need to change."

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