Coronavirus accelerated some positive changes for sports concessions…

Mike Plutino | January 26th, 2021

Behind the devastation the virus wreaked on teams and their partners in 2020, there are some rays of hope in the innovation and creativity shown by the industry that position it for a revival in the post-pandemic environment.


The sports and entertainment industry, specifically the food and beverage service side, was ripe for a reset in 2020. Amazon Go, frictionless transactions, mobile ordering were all topics of discussion for the last three to five years, but the speed and breadth at which change has swept through our industry has been nothing short of remarkable. The abrupt ending of the NBA season in March solidified the severity of what we would refer to as a global pandemic. We could never have imagined how many more shoes would eventually drop as virtually every major scheduled sports or entertainment event would be canceled or postponed.


At first, there was a small sliver of hope that the pandemic would be able to be controlled and fans could still participate on game day, but on a smaller scale…..but that quickly turned into vacant stadiums and a health crisis that could not be ignored. Similar to a brushfire, the COVID-19 pandemic has almost overnight cleared away years of old habits in the food and beverage industry.

The standard operating practices and general response from everyone involved with the fan experience quickly morphed from the “this is how we do it” mantra, to “we have to pivot to stay alive in 2020.” This virus provided the fuel for long-term sweeping changes that would have taken years in normal times. With over $11B dollars lost in game-day revenue this year, the impact has been devastating for teams, employees, fans, and foodservice partners. But we believe the amazing innovation and creativity that emerged in 2020 will outweigh the monetary losses in the long run.


As we have seen many times before when in crisis, the resourceful and resilient food and beverage industry rallied and began to develop plans for what the world would look like when we emerged from the pandemic. Almost immediately, sports and entertainment venues and team executives that were once fierce competitors began uniting to share knowledge and collectively game plan what the future will look like when fans return to venues. Task forces were assembled, consultants became even more valuable to share their perspective on the future of sports, and the deep examination of current business models and relationships were completed.


While the initial discussions were almost solely focused on safety and sanitation and how fans would be made to feel comfortable when they eventually returned to a venue, the dialogue quickly expanded to all aspects of the food and beverage fan experience. It became clear that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent ourselves.


We initially had more questions than answers, but nothing was off the table. How could existing technology could be leveraged to improve the speed of service in general concessions? How could operating costs be reduced to reflect the initial stages of reduced occupancy? Is the “buffet” gone forever? How could menu offerings be simplified to be more targeted and focused? How could operating efficiencies be leveraged to reduce the number of employees needed to reflect a diminished workforce that was already challenging prior to the pandemic? What changes need to be made to foodservice partner agreements to account for the losses? How would this permanently affect the way financial deals are structured between venues/teams and foodservice partners in the future? The fall of 2020 was the season for honest and open communication for all stakeholders to be able to mitigate losses and maximize efficiency.


As football season approached and it was clear that we had many more months of change ahead of us, and our virtual meetings shifted from salvaging 2020 to planning for what the food and beverage fan experience would look like in a post-vaccine world. Our many discussions evolved from temporary adjustments to accommodate limited capacity events to what could become “the new normal” in 2021 and beyond.


Food preparation, ordering procedures, point-of-sale technology, staffing models, local restaurant integration, employee safety, virtual training programs, social distancing considerations, cashless markets, and much more are being discussed on a regular basis to ensure all bases are covered when fans begin to join us again. As all teams strive to be beacons of hope for their cities and believe that community engagement is the key to their success, we are confident that small businesses and local restaurants will a major part of the reconstruction of the sports and entertainment landscape. These venues are uniquely positioned to greatly impact their immediate neighborhoods by offering jobs to the unemployed, foodservice contracts to restaurateurs, and hope to citizens who are struggling to find a sense of normalcy.


Though we at Food Service Matters fully acknowledge that the COVID-19 virus has caused irreversible damage to people both professionally and personally, from strictly a business point of view we think the pandemic had some very positive outcomes as well. We think financial (food and beverage) deals will be fairer moving forward, venues and foodservice partners will be more aligned and transparent with one another, employees will feel safer and better prepared to become true brand stewards and fans will be more appreciated as absence has definitely made our hearts grow fonder.


2020 was a mixed bag for sure, but we are confident that 2021 will begin to showcase all the improvements made and will be known as the “Year of the Hospitality Renaissance” when we look back on how we made it through.