March 30, 2008
An alarming trend will be making an appearance at many of America’s baseball parks on Opening Day this year. Along with the usual festivities synonymous with this rite of Spring-the first pitch of the season, the crack of the bat, kids sitting in the stands with glove in hand, hoping to catch a foul ball-comes the prospect of a not-so-obvious threat to our nation’s health: the compounding of our already out-of-control obesity epidemic. And the marketing geniuses behind America’s big league parks are the culprit. In their quest to fill empty seats of under performing teams, they have embraced a new tool: offering unlimited food and drink for a price. At most participating parks, fans paying an extra premium can consume unlimited hot dogs, nachos, popcorn, soda and water. (Beer and desserts are extra).
The Orioles are going to expand their all-you-can-eat section at Camden Yards. 12 other MLB teams are offering similar deals all across the country, with other ball clubs considering doing the same. NASCAR, the NHL, and the NBA have introduced the program at some of their venues.
And that sounds great. What is more American than watching baseball and eating to your heart’s content? Sports and food are part of our heritage, as American as apple pie. And we wouldn’t want to lose that heritage, would we? But do we want our nation’s obesity rate, now the highest in the world, to become part of that heritage and pride? Do we want to pass that heavy weight on to our children?
Park owners say that these new deals are a great way for fans, especially families, to get around rising food prices. And they are right: food at the ballpark has gotten ridiculously expensive in recent years. But who raised those prices? Ballpark owners and concession companies, the same people who now stand to gain from the all-you-can-eat tickets. With this new option, the venues are able to charge a higher price for foods they buy by the ton.
This year, a ticket to the All-You-Can-Eat Pavilion at Camden Yards costs $40 to $60 dollars (up from $25 last year). Can you eat $60 dollars worth of nachos? Maybe. But do you really want to? And if you do, are you going to be paying another tab a few years down the road? It is great to save five bucks on a meal, but how does that compare to the cost of hospitalization for a heart attack? The CDC says that one in three Americans is obese, and that is a predictor for heart attack, diabetes, stroke, and erectile dysfunction, any one of which can ruin your bank account or your day at the ball park.
There is an irony here: At a time when fans are eating chili dogs and swilling soda as if they have medicinal properties, the players we all admire are watching what they eat. Most major league sports teams have nutritionists on staff, and some top-tier athletes have their own personal dieticians. It is safe to say that professional athletes are not hunkered down in the dugout, downing chili cheese dogs between at-bats. Even though we mere mortals do not ask as much from our bodies as professional athletes do, we are just as dependent on our bodies as the pros are. Is there a way that we can enjoy the game, our family and friends, and food without poisoning ourselves?
With heart disease, stroke, and cancer as leading causes of death in the US, ballparks would get more money in the long run if they helped families eat healthy. Offering veggie burgers and fruit cups, as some ball parks now do, is a start. Unfortunately, these healthy options are usually much more expensive than mass-produced hot dogs and popcorn. If the parks are really concerned about fans’ wallets and health, they would find a way to get healthier food out there cheaply. Fans asking for cheap, healthy options will move the process along. Baseball and family are the best American culture has to offer. Mindless gluttony to fill someone else’s pocket is the worst.
The next time you find yourself in the stands, ask yourself, “What would Brian Roberts eat?”
Chris Stevens and Geoffrey Gresk