Article Thumbnail

The Infuriating Saga of the $15 Ballpark Beer

And at what point do we riot in the streets over inexplicably expensive Bud Light?

Ain’t nothing like going to a live game: The smell of the field; the excitement of the fans around you; and of course, the sensation of getting violently fisted by the concession stand for a cup of weak beer. 

Yes, sir, ain’t nothing like a live game. 

Seriously, why is one stupid beer so Goddamn expensive? I know many stadiums have fancy craft brews now, which easily can run you $15 or more, but even the crappy light beers that your dad drinks can run you $10 a cup. 

As it turns out, there are many reasons for this, but most of them boil down to, “shit is expensive.” As consumer psychologist Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and the forthcoming The Future of Eating and Drinking explains, in addition to paying for the employees and the products themselves like a normal business, concession stands are charging more to make up for the fact that they’re only open for a few hours a week. Then factor in that a lot of people get a cut of that dough, including the team, and in some instances ⁠— like in the NFL ⁠— players have a percentage of concessions in their contract.

Underhill also points out that at a ballpark, the attendees are an entirely captive audience, so you’ve really got no choice but to pay the exorbitant booze fee if you plan on drinking at all (even the stadiums that allow you to bring in outside food and drink don’t allow alcohol to be brought in from outside).

If you listen to those making the money, though ⁠⁠— like this general manager — there’s another reason why beer is so pricey: They don’t want you getting too drunk. “We don’t want people to overindulge on beer. A higher price point guards against that,” he told Newsday. Now, this might seem like a crock of shit, but the notion isn’t entirely without merit. Case in point: The infamous “10 Cent Beer Night” hosted by the Cleveland Indians in 1974. If you aren’t familiar with this story, essentially, the stadium sold beer — normally going for 65 cents — for 10 cents a cup (which equals out to about 50 cents per cup today). As you can probably imagine, people got way too drunk, and the game erupted into a riot, which included fans rushing the field. So yeah, maybe we can’t be trusted with beer that’s too cheap.

But there’s more to that story. According to Ashland University’s Cory Hillman, author of American Sports in an Age of Consumption: How Commercialization Is Changing the Game, the week prior, the Rangers — who the Indians would go on to play on 10 Cent Beer Night — got into a brawl down in Texas. Following that, the Rangers manager began badmouthing the Indians ball club and fan base. So when the riot later happened, “You had a fan base that was riled up anyway, so I think that needs to be taken into account,” explains Hillman.

Either way, if you track beer prices from that time until today, it’s hard to see where things went completely nuts. Especially because there was no point where the price leapt from 65 cents a cup to $10 — it was gradual, taking decades of building up. What is true is that, when comparing that 65-cent beer in 1974 to the price at a normal bar, the ballpark was generally a cheap place to buy a beer, as a pint back then went for around $1. Obviously this doesn’t account for the size of the glass, brand differences, etc., but any way you slice it, a beer at a ballpark was cheap in the 1970s (65 cents then translates to $3.38 now). 

A decade later, though, a beer at a Cardinals game in 1988 was already at $2.50. Compared to a pint that sold for $2 at a bar, however, it wasn’t that much more. That $2.50 equates to $5.41 today, and while finding a $5 beer at a ballgame now isn’t impossible, it’s fairly hard to find

Jumping another decade to 1998, a beer at Camden Yards was going for $3.75, which translates to about $6 today — again, not a bad price for a ballgame, but considering a pint was selling for $2.73 in a bar back then, it’s clear the ballpark beer was making some strides in its price.

Moving ahead once more, beer was selling for an average of $5.70 at football games in 2006, which is $7.24 today, and starting to get pretty damn pricey, especially since a pint in a bar around that time would run you only $3.31 (or $4.21 today). To switch back to baseball, beer was still going for $5 in the late 2000s, but this makes some sense since — as Underhill mentions — football concessions are open even less frequently than baseball concessions due to there being fewer games (162 v. 16). 

In the NFL, from 2007 to 2008, beer jumped one whole dollar, from $5.83 to $6.80. After that, it gradually increased about 15 cents per year, give or take, getting to $8.17 in 2018. In baseball, $8 beer nowadays is also pretty customary in many ballparks.

So although it was gradual, it’s clear the real escalation started during the late 1990s, and Hillman feels that an important factor has to do with changes that happened in baseball during that era. As Hillman says, “A number of teams were building new stadiums in the 1990s, which started with the opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992.” With that new stadium, Hillman says that they weren’t just trying to sell you baseball anymore — they were trying to sell you an experience, with the stadium offering more shopping and other stuff to do besides watching a game. Baseball also began making an effort to entice a different kind of fan to its games; Hillman explains that instead of the rowdy, low-class fan, baseball was trying to bring in families who had disposable income and upwardly mobile young people. As a part of this, everything — especially ticket prices — began to cost more money. 

While Hillman says that nobody would ever admit to a conscious effort to price out the “true” die-hard fans, he explains that to attract families, it almost certainly helped to price out these lower-class fans who might make them feel unsafe. Additionally, these new stadiums often became the centerpiece of big urban renewal projects, so that once again, a suburban family would feel safer coming into the city for a game. 

And as the fanbase changed, everything began to cost more. Beer wasn’t special, it was just along for the ride — we focus on it because we Americans love our beer, but ballgame beer prices are no more overpriced than ballgame hot dogs. As evidence, just look at the price of a beer and a hot dog in 1970: At Wrigley Field, a hot dog cost 35 cents while a beer was 50 cents. At Wrigley today, a hot hog is $6.50 while a beer is $9.50. And while the prices are obviously a lot more, the proportions are the same — a hot dog still costs about two-thirds of what a beer costs.

Simply put, the depressing truth is, beer got so expensive because it could get more expensive. The new fanbase could afford pricey suds, so they paid for it — as a result, prices kept on moving up and up and up and up. 

At what point will it stop? Twenty years from now, will we all be complaining about $40 for a beer at a game? Or will we reach a breaking point in which we revolt? 

It’s hard to say, but both Underhill and Hillman say the breaking point may already be underway. This revolt won’t consist of riots in the streets and stadiums engulfed in flames, though. More likely, a revolt will look like nothing at all — people will simply stop going to games, which is happening right now at an alarming pace. Between the crazy ticket prices and the crazy beer prices and the crazy everything else prices, baseball attendance is way down. 

“We’re at the point where the bubble has expanded as much as it possibly can,” says Hillman. “The four major professional sports are nervous because the younger sports fans aren’t there. A lot of young people used to become sports fans because they’d go to a game with a family member, and now we’re at a point where a lot of families can’t afford to take their kids to these games.” As evidence, he adds, “The number of people who identify as an avid or serious sports fan is declining.”

Underhill says that for games like football and especially baseball, with the amount of downtime in a game, much of the experience of going to a game is about spending time with friends. “It’s a very social experience,” he says. But now that it costs a fortune to go, people just hang out elsewhere with their buddies, like their local bar, safely removed from the place where team owners, players and everyone else is getting a cut of your beer’s cost. 

As further evidence that we might already be in the midst of a concession stand revolution, you may have noticed that there’s a growing movement by stadiums to slash the prices of items at their concession stands. In a CBS News piece titled “Mercedes-Benz Stadium Stopped Ripping Off Fans at the Concession Stand and Sparked a Revolution,” it’s detailed how, in 2017, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank decided to introduce — or rather, reintroduce — “fan-friendly” prices at his ballpark. They rolled out $5 beers and $2 hot dogs and guess what? They made a fucking killing. Profit margins soared because so many people were buying shit again. And since they made money in their grand experiment, it’s no surprise that other teams — like the Baltimore Ravens and the Detroit Lions — have followed suit.

The Super Bowl itself, the most money-centric of any sporting event, illustrates this movement perfectly. In 2017 and 2018, you can find news stories aplenty about the outrageous costs at the concession stands. Yet at the 2019 Super Bowl — held at the Falcons stadium — people were amazed at how cheap food and drinks were.

None of this guarantees things will change everywhere, of course. The Packers have already said they won’t follow suit, and stadiums with bigger teams may not need to cut prices because their attendance isn’t all that bad (yet). In baseball, while many teams are hurting, big-market teams like the Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox generally do okay filling their seats, so they don’t need to slash prices either (again: yet).

So what does all this mean for the future of a cold brew at the ballpark? Probably that if some stadiums overcharge for concessions while others don’t, people will travel to more away games to see their home teams. This is exactly what’s happening with English soccer fans who have been priced out of the stands, as it’s not unusual for them to travel to Germany for a cheaper game

The one certain guarantee is that beer prices will only fall if team owners think they can make more money from it. While the NFL is showing that this is possible, whether or not it takes hold is really up to the fans, and if you’ve decided to already shell out hundreds of dollars to take you and your family to a game, will you really resist paying another $15 for a beer? 

While I hate to say it — probably not. As Underhill explains, unless the real problems are addressed — like overpriced tickets — beer prices will likely remain unchanged, and tragically, may even continue to rise.