The Member Inclusive program will cover favorites such as chicken tenders and nachos for season-ticket holders. (Courtesy San Francisco 49ers)

Change, to take effect next season, marks a first for sports concessions

The San Francisco 49ers, in a bold move that could potentially trigger a major shift in the sports concessions model, will fold the cost of food and drink into most season tickets next year at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The move affects 60,000 seats at the 68,500-seat facility.

The program excludes the 174 suites at Levi’s Stadium and single-game tickets, plus season tickets resold through the secondary market. 

Levy runs the stadium’s food service.

Season-ticket holders are being notified of the move today by email.

On average, season tickets for 2020 will go up in price about $20 for every seat per game to cover the cost of food and drink, said Alex Chang, the 49ers’ chief marketing officer. It’s the first increase in the price of season tickets since the team moved to Levi’s Stadium in 2014, Chang said.

Convenience and speed of service drove the move, 49ers President Al Guido said. Industry consultants say cost certainty is another benefit for fans who don’t have to reach in their pockets to pay for food and drink with cash or credit cards. 

“It’s all about season-ticket holder value and the evolution of what is happening in the bundled space,” Guido said.

The Member Inclusive program, the name of the 49ers’ initiative, covers about 15 basic concession items such as hot dogs, nachos, chicken tenders, garlic fries, nachos and nonalcoholic beverages. Fans must pay out of pocket for beer, wine and hard liquor, and specialty food items such as brisket and crab sandwiches are excluded.

The NFL, which tested all-inclusive premium seats for Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, approved the measure, Guido said.

“We had numerous discussions with the league over the past six months,” Guido said. “The NFL is fully aware and understand our reasons for doing it and are very supportive.”

The all-inclusive ticketing model is nothing new in sports, but to this point, it has been restricted largely to premium areas such as club seats. More teams are adopting the model for suites as well, such as the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Over the years, teams and concessionaires have marketed spinoffs of all-inclusive. Ten years ago, coming off the recession, multiple MLB teams marketed all-you-can-eat seats for certain sections such as the right-field bleachers at Dodger Stadium, which Coca-Cola sponsored for the 2019 season. Separately, many teams have adopted small increments of stored value in tickets that allows fans to buy concessions.

To this point, though, no big league team has applied an all-inclusive model covering virtually the entire seating bowl until the 49ers made the commitment in conjunction with Levy. (The Frisco RoughRiders, a minor league baseball team in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth, offered all-inclusive season tickets in 2003, according to Steve DeLay, a former executive with the old Mandalay Baseball Properties, which owned the RoughRiders).

In Santa Clara, where two club spaces tied to about 1,000 seats already feature all-inclusive tickets, the 49ers are responding to the wishes of their season-ticket holders after analyzing data from fan surveys taken over the past five seasons, Guido said. 

Overwhelmingly, they approved the idea of integrating the cost of food and drink into their season-ticket price, he said. 

The 49ers have been talking about implementing all-inclusive season tickets since they hired Levy as their new concessionaire before the 2018 season. The partnership was structured in a way that would allow for the possibility to go all-inclusive for the whole stadium, team officials said. 

“We got insights from other teams that have done this in smaller subsets of their fan base and also talked to Levy, which has a lot of experience,” Guido said. “We’re going to pioneer this program in some ways, learn what we can from others who have done this in part and blaze a trail to some degree to execute it in a venue this size.”

Guido would not provide details on the financial agreement between the 49ers and Levy. The team worked closely with E15, Levy’s data analytics group, to determine the incremental increase. 

Per caps for regular-season NFL games typically run $12 to $16 without alcohol and increase $8 to $10 with the purchase of alcohol, consultants said.

“We have a deal with Levy that makes it such that the economics are there to pull this off,” Guido said. “It wasn’t about getting the most money, but aligned incentives such as quality of product and speed of service.”

Levy executives were not available for comment.

Chris Bigelow, a food consultant who works with many big league teams, said, “I’m sure they sat down with Levy and said, ‘OK, this is what the average person spends and we’re going to do this, so figure a boost of 25 percent if it’s free and we’ll reimburse you for it.’ Levy’s not going to take the risk.”

The logistics of serving 60,000 fans holding all-inclusive tickets are still being worked out, Guido said. It will most likely include adjustments such as redesigning concession stands for season-ticket holders vs. single-game buyers using cash and credit cards. Wristbands or a member credential badge worn around the neck, which 49ers season-ticket holders already use for discounts when purchasing in-stadium merchandise, are other options, he said.

The 49ers were among the first NFL teams to adopt mobile ticketing when Levi’s Stadium opened, and Guido said technology is in place that allows the team and Levy to identify fans who have the all-inclusive benefit on their mobile devices when ordering food and drink at concession stands.

“In reality, it’s no different than TSA Precheck vs. non-precheck at the airport,” he said. “It shows up on your mobile plane ticket as a logo. We feel good about the infrastructure from a connectivity standpoint, and given all the changes that have happened in the NFL with technology, this is probably the best time to roll it out.”

Consumption could be an issue, and that’s another thing the 49ers have to figure out, Chang said. There will be no limit to what fans can eat within the set menu, but there could be restrictions, for example, of two hot dogs per purchase to keep the lines moving and avoid congestion, he said.

Chang said, “We’ll work with Levy and look at other models out there to understand how do we create an experience where people can get what they want and when they want it, but also limit our risk and food waste and things like that.” 

In Atlanta, where AMB Sports & Entertainment installed fan-friendly pricing for concessions in 2017 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, stadium workers initially struggled to keep up with all the trash produced from selling all those $2 hot dogs, sodas and popcorn before resolving the issue. Levy runs the food at the home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and MLS’s Atlanta United.

“My first thought is, from the food side, if it’s unlimited food and beverage or a $20 voucher, how do you accommodate everybody and not have people be disappointed?” said Jim Fischer, a retired concessions executive who ran an all-you-can-eat program at Kauffman Stadium. “With Atlanta, and now San Francisco, clearly the teams view it as it’s better to have someone in the seats and at the game, and not staying home and saying the concessions, parking and everything else is too expensive.”

Rick Abramson, chief customer officer for Delaware North Sportservice, has been in the concessions industry for more than 50 years and he applauds the move. Abramson said he has tried for years to persuade MLB teams to include a hot dog, a soft drink, popcorn and peanuts into the cost of every ticket sold, not just season tickets. 

“We’re going to have to be disruptive and change and be as frictionless as possible,” he said. “What got us here isn’t going to get us there, so we have to change things. It’s all about the customer in all of our hospitality businesses.”

The 49ers’ program is also another way to move toward a cashless operation as more teams pursue that goal to increase speed of service and generate incremental revenue, industry experts said. 

“If you’re not going to charge for food and drink, that’s as cashless as you can get,” Bigelow said. 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since it was originally published.