Go to a Major League Baseball game, and the invisible effects of analytics are everywhere – from the pitches being thrown, to the positioning of fielders or the swing plane of the hitters.
And even the hot dog you might enjoy at the ballpark.
Two years of shuttered, fan-less or even partially opened ballparks had the potential to wreak predictive havoc on baseball’s guest experience. Throw in supply-chain issues, surging inflation and a perilous lockout right before the 2022 season commenced, and both the price and availability of your favorite ballpark snacks could have been significantly impacted.
But feeding 10,000 to 50,000 fans over 81 home games and six months is an awful lot like managing a ballgame: Know the issues and get ahead of them before you’re behind.
The three mega-corporations who control the lion’s share of ballpark food saw their usual balancing act – satisfying ballclubs, finding palatable price points for fans and turning a profit – imperiled greatly since the onset of the pandemic. The two biggest services – Delaware North and Aramark – said doubling down on preparation and predictive behavior proved crucial to keep the price of a hot dog hovering between around $3 and $7 per ballpark this year.
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“Our job is to bring analytics to our clients as much as we can, and make sure we have a value proposition for our guests,” says Kevin Miller, vice president of food and beverage for Delaware North, which provides concession and catering services to 11 MLB ballparks. “Nothing’s inexpensive anymore. Look at gas. But what we want do is once all of a sudden they’re there, is to have something to enjoy to not spend a ton of money on.
“We don’t want to hurt avid fans in their pockets too much. And everyone walks away full and content.”
So with the drumbeat of inflation increasing last autumn, Miller and his team hedged their bets.
As commodity prices began creeping up, and media and industry reports signaling higher costs on the way, preemptive action was required. Forget the CDC – Miller’s CHC (Culinary and Hospitality Council) proved vital to the near future.
In September, Miller’s team identified 11 core menu items Delaware North most needed to procure – hot dogs and French fries near the top of the list – and worked to secure contracts and procure supplies with multiple vendors. By October, the corporation had a better idea of the landscape ahead.
Even with, according to Miller, 65% of hot dogs provided by presenting sponsors at ballparks, it still left a massive void to fill, particularly given the array of red hots available from the most basic to the most ornate, Instagram-thirsty hunks of meat.
“We’ve had to be able to pivot, based on supply chains,” says Miller. “We developed a secondary as well as a tertiary provider. We had options to move toward another product based on contracts that procurement developed for us. We’ve been able to mitigate a lot of issues.”
It’s been a similar story at Aramark, which holds contracts for nine major league parks and, combined with Delaware North, controls concessions for two-thirds of all big league parks.
“The unprecedented nature of the pandemic has created supply chain issues that are unusual in their scale and reach across categories,” Aramark said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. “Our Supply Chain team is extremely focused on doing everything possible to ensure sports fans enjoy a great experience.
“We are using detailed forecasting, having ongoing and constant communications with suppliers, utilizing backup suppliers from our broad network, and ensuring our operators are flexible and have pre-planned menu options to ensure availability and mitigate costs.”
Of course, you can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict how many people might show up. The pandemic and inflation already threw plenty of what-ifs into the equation, and in 2021, just two teams – the contending and exciting Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres – experienced attendance gains. A significant majority of clubs did not fully open their ballparks until mid-June or early July.
And then the lockout – a 99-day industry freeze that delayed the season and caused nervous heartbeats in Delaware North’s Buffalo headquarters – landed at the most inopportune time.
It’s been a mixed bag at the turnstile since ballparks opened April 7 – overall attendance is slightly down, with chilly weather lingering throughout the Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Yet many ballparks are at or nearing 2019 levels, including the cold-weather Minnesota Twins, whose weekday crowds have been ranging in the 11,000-19,000 range, similar to April 2019.
Perhaps the signing of All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa helped circumvent any losses, which Miller is hoping plays out in other markets.
“A couple teams this year, based on what clients have done, we’re super, super excited about what they’ll have coming,” Miller says, citing the Texas Rangers’ commitment of more than a half-billion dollars in contracts to All-Stars such as Corey Seager and Marcus Semien.
While revenue figures are incomplete, early data indicates those that do show up bring a particularly voracious appetite. They are greeted with ostensibly more efficient means of acquiring their food, thanks to contactless payment and app-based ordering that gained significant prominence as teams eased out of the pandemic.
Which makes it all the more important to have a Plan A, but also B and C, when you set out to acquire hot dogs, fries and popcorn.
“It’s just the volume that continually surprises us on how much the guest wants to come out and spend and consume,” says Miller. “That’s been the most promising point, if you look at it from global economic since going full bright again.
“Consumption is significantly up. It’s remarkable.”