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Take me out ‘to eat’ at the ballgame

By Staff | May 1, 2009

At a time when Americans are being told it’s time to scale back to smaller vehicles, smaller mortgage payments, smaller meals and smaller expectations, things have gone a little haywire at the ballpark.

No, I’m not referring to the players’ salaries, although, those have gotten totally out of hand. I’m referring to a popular new phenomenon called all-you-can-eat seating that has quickly become a big hit these days at many major league ballparks.

The concept is as simple and straightforward as it sounds: for a premium price, you can sit in a special section of the stands – usually nosebleed seats that would normally not be occupied – and chow down all the concession food your belly can hold.

A few years ago, no teams offered this deal. Last year, six did. This year, thirteen plan to. Naturally, health professionals and nutritionists are cringing at the popularity of the new marketing tool aimed to fill seats.

As expected, some fans go hog wild in these sections.

The all-you-can-eat (AYCE) concept is very popular these days for a couple of reasons. People like the fact that they pay only once and don’t have to go back into their pockets every time they get the urge to indulge themselves at the concession stand.

But while it’s convenient, AYCE can also get out of hand. There’s the universal human desire to get one’s money’s worth, which will certainly apply to this deal. The chance to beat the house at its own game will be an irresistible challenge to the competitive spirit of the sports fan. In practice, this has tended to mean the consumption of significantly more food than the fan would normally eat, or perhaps even really want to eat.

One team concessionaire did some math and estimated that the average AYCE fan puts away almost three and a half hot dogs, a half-pound of peanuts, an order of nachos, plus popcorn and 20 ounces of soda, which works out to three times the calories and carbs, and seven times the fat, recommended for an entire day. Several AYCE sections have even staged hot dog-eating contests in celebration of gluttony.

The second problem with AYCE seats lies not just in the concept, but in the nature of the customary ballpark menu, most of which makes nutritionists’ and dietitians’ skins crawl: sugary soft drinks, fat-oozing brats and sausages, nachos swimming in cheese-like glop, ice cream sundaes, salty pretzels and peanuts, chili-cheese fries, and the list goes on.

Truthfully, the concept should be marketed as the all-the-high-calorie-high-fat-high-cholesterol-junk-food-you-can-eat seats. Sadly, calling it like it is still wouldn’t knock some sense into the folks who throw the sensible diet out the window when they go the game.

I’ve seen it myself at major sporting events. People just seem to go crazy at the concession stands. They act as if it’s their last meal. Whatever happened to just going to the game to enjoy the action? It’s gotten to be more about the food than the game.

This pig-out-as-if-it’s-your-last-meal mentality is everywhere. One minor league baseball park in Michigan has taken the hamburger to new heights. They offer a burger made with five patties plus chili, American cheese, nacho cheese, tortilla chips, salsa, lettuce, tomato and sour cream – all piled on an eight-inch bun made with a pound of dough.

The mammoth meal weighs more than four pounds and offers up a whopping 4,800 calories. In an apparent bid to cook up some comfort food during hard economic times, the burger is daring fans to eat the “snack,” promising a free T-shirt to anyone who succeeds.

Last time I checked, there wasn’t much by way of healthy eating available on the menu at the ballpark. But this monster burger may be taking man vs. food to the next level. It’s the caloric equivalent of nine Big Macs. This burger is so big it has to be served in a pizza box with an open top. And people love it.

In all fairness, the ballpark is marketing the burger as a family meal. It comes sliced in four portions. It isn’t necessarily meant for one person to eat. Some just see it as a challenge.

I know some people might ask, “What’s the harm in overindulging once in a while?” I agree on some level. You can either see the behemoth burger as a symbol of American excess, or you can see it as just a fun time at the ballpark.

Maybe pigging out at the ballpark is rare for most people. And I guess there’s no better place to experience excess, when you think about the extreme price of the tickets, the ridiculous salaries collected by players, and the huge dollar figures spent on state-of-the-art stadiums these days. Sports in America are all about luxury and excess. Why not carry that over into the concession stands?

The fact is that Americans love to indulge themselves. And even the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression will never change that.

Mullally is a Tribune writer.

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