“Larks’ tongues, Wrens’ livers. Chaffinch brains. Jaguars’ earlobes. Wolf nipple chips. Get ‘em while they’re hot, they’re lovely. Dromedary pretzels, only half a denar. Tuscany-fried bats, otters’ noses, ocelot spleens,” shouted Brian Cohen as he made his way around the colosseum in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
While Brian’s snacks were being offered as men died in the arena provided some minor comedy, he wasn’t too far off the mark.
Sure, jaguars’ earlobes weren’t on the menu, but street vendors, particularly around Ancient Roman arenas, sold everything from dried figs and sausages, to fish and apples.
Wine could also be sourced on the street while hot chickpeas were often the most popular due to their low cost.
For as long as sport has existed, there have been vendors selling their food.
In today’s modern stadiums, kitchens are built to ensure hot food is available on game days, but that wasn’t always the case.
Up until 1980s Australia, kitchens weren’t really part of stadium designs. Most grounds had simply been built as additions to an existing grandstand that was erected at some stage in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
Cricket grounds tended to be the best resourced because of the length of play but even then, food was mostly supplied by outside vendors.
As is somewhat predictable though, the modern trend of food being prepared inside stadiums started in the United States.
Like Australia, late 19th and early 20th century stadium or ballpark food consisted mostly of what people could bring to games or what vendors could sell outside grounds.
Unsurprisingly, food that could be eaten with one hand became popular, and alongside an influx of German immigrants into the States in the late 1800s, the hotdog became the choice of baseball fans.
As Humphrey Bogart once said, “a hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz”.
An Englishman by the name of Harry Stevens who had emigrated from London to Ohio in the 1880s then introduced America and the sporting world to the in-stadium hospitality company.
He set up a business, Harry M Stevens Inc, which provided hot dogs, soda and peanuts at stadiums across the country.
America was now on the path to its, quite frankly, world-leading stadium food.
Australia is a little stuck in its ways though. Meat pies and sausage rolls still seem to be main fare alongside some hot chips and a coke.
While fans in California’s new SoFi Stadium get a pretty wide choice of chilli dogs, chilli, burritos, tacos, Stromboli dogs, pizza, meatballs, chocolate pudding, chicken tenders and crispy chicken sandwich.
LA fans will say the food isn’t terrific. Let’s be honest, stadium food is rarely terrific, it’s there to feed people as quickly as possible. However it’s the variety that most fans will say they like.
American sports, particularly the ones where food is most prominent, are more stop-start affairs.
NFL matches regularly exceed three hours, as do MLB games. Both sports have short periods of intense play and longer periods of breaks, which provides opportunities for spectators to go and get food.
The AFL with its fairly fluent nature as well as the NRL’s see games finished inside 2.5 hours and two hours respectively.
The AFL does have quarters and half times, while the NRL also has a half time break, however, neither have two minute warnings or up to 12 time outs per match.
Food is also as much cultural as it is part of sport. American football is famous for its tailgate parties before matches.
Whereas in England particularly, food isn’t generally a big part of the stadium experience when it comes to soccer.
Food is still served, but stadiums are often built in residential areas, surrounded by pubs and restaurants.
Why try and down a soggy meat pie when you’re squashed shoulder to shoulder in the Anfield Kop, when you can grab fish and chips at Sing Fong around the corner followed by a pint at The Albert?
Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. Whether inside the ground or outside, fans want choice. Some sports such as baseball or American football are virtually built for in-stadium catering, while soccer is better served by getting a feed outside the ground.
Australia’s new stadiums seem to be looking at more diverse catering, especially when you consider a ground could be hosting cricket one weekend and the A-League or NRL the next.
CommBank Stadium, which opened in 2019 serves a range of sushi, pizza, pulled pork and hokkien noodles alongside your regular pies and sausage rolls.
Food court style set ups have been introduced to both the Sydney Cricket Ground and Adelaide Oval.
Much has been made of NRL attendances over the years and food is apparently a contributor to whether fans will attend regularly.
The vast majority of NRL crowds are made up of casual fans. Look at a club’s crowds when they’re doing poorly and you’ll likely get a proper sense of the number of rusted on fans.
Those rusted on fans are going regardless of the food being sold.
Therefore, enticing casual fans to games becomes an important part of growing attendance figures.
The most important part of ticket sales is a team’s on-field performance. Good teams sell tickets.
But the facilities a stadium has also play a leading role.
Stadiums without adequate parent rooms or simply easily accessible toilets are going to deter the number of families that attend matches.
Food, meanwhile, also plays an important role in ensuring the casual spectator has a good experience and therefore decides to return.
Research conducted by Western Sydney University and Bournemouth University in 2016 found that an inability to easily access food and beverage outlets impacted spectator satisfaction, while stadium food prices were generally the biggest gripe amongst fans.
The research found that fans awarded food prices the lowest satisfaction rating.
How many times have you gone to a ground and taken a look at the prices of food or beer?
You’ve probably commented on how everything is overpriced, and they can’t be serious charging $10 for a mid-strength beer.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and despite the drive from both government and industry, very few fans were concerned with how healthy the food on sale was.
Fans were more concerned with how quickly they could be served than how healthy the food was.
And that is mostly down to people seeing a trip to the footy as an event. Something they only do a handful of times a year.
Even if you went to every home game your side has every NRL season, you’re only going to 12 games, and that’s if all 12 are played at home rather than taken to a regional centre or if they’re shared like the Tigers and Dragons.
Therefore, fans, even health conscious ones, are likely to grab that burger or meat pie with a beer over the salad or poke bowl now being sold because it’s a treat.
It also says something that academic institutions have conducted research into food at sporting events.
At the end of the day, whether you’re in the bleachers of Lambeau Field, the seats of Anfield or in the cauldron of Suncorp Stadium, food is an integral part of live sport. But where you are in the world is probably going to dictate whether you’re scoffing down a meat pie, or laying into a hot dog.
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