With the 2018 MLS season underway, several storylines will be playing out on the facilities side of the business equation. This week we look at the amazing success for Atlanta United FC and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017 and how stadium managers plan on replicating that success in 2018.
It was an amazing 2017 for Atlanta United: on the pitch, the expansion team made the MLS playoffs before losing to Columbus in the first round, and on the business side, the team set an MLS attendance record while splitting home matches between Bobby Dodd Stadium and Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta United FC set a record for season attendance, becoming the first MLS team to surpass 800,000 fans in a season and breaking the record of 752,199 set by the Seattle Sounders in 2015. And, with a crowd of 71.874 to end the season, Atlanta United FC set the league match attendance record.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium made lots of waves by not only setting attendance records, but by how these records were set. Long story short: Atlanta United FC owner Arthur Blank, his management team and business partner Levy Restaurants settled on a volume strategy, betting that lower-priced concessions would lead to more purchases. In other words, selling an inexpensive hot dog, soda or chicken sandwich would lead to additional purchases of inexpensive hot dogs, sodas or chicken sandwiches-or be enticed into an upsell to a more expensive chicken sandwich.
The strategy worked.
The key, said Mike Gomes, SVP of Fan Experience at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is not to simply lower prices and adjust product quality. While Levy’s expertise has been tapped on the supply side, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium concessions are run by stadium officials, with prices at branded stands matching the pricing outside the stadium (i.e., prices are comparable for that chicken sandwich no matter if you’re buying it at Mercedes-Benz Stadium or the local drive-through).
“We sold good food at good prices,” he said. “A $2 hot dog that is cold is still not good.”
Mercedes-Benz Stadium was designed for a high-volume operation, with more onsite cooking capacity (53 percent of concession stands can prepare food there) and a concessions system geared toward quicker transaction times.
“We knew there was going to be a volume uptick,” he said.
Overall, concessions demand was 50 percent higher than what was planned. According to Gomes, stadium per caps were up (in the end, there were more units per transaction than anticipated) and there more upsells to specialty items. The novel pricing approach also brought fans out sooner to games, as fans decided to spend their money in the stadium instead of eating beforehand. The stadium, overall, even saw a big increase in merchandise sales, between the new Atlanta United fans and the Atlanta Falcons generating new sales during a playoff run.
You may not see many changes at an Atlanta United FC game this season, but that’s on purpose.
“We measure improvement game by game, not from year to year,” Gomes said. What will happen, he says, is a review of operations after listening to what fans have to say, both in terms of their actual purchases and feedback. There were 29 ticketed events at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017, and big events at the stadium in 2018 include the MLS All-Star Game, the 2018 Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game, several high-profile concerts (including Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney), several college bowls and the SEC Championship. Super Bowl LIII is set for 2019. Stadium managers will also be working off ratings compiled by both MLS and the NFL when it comes to fan satisfaction. Ratings for Atlanta United operations at the top of MLS rankings across the board: Variety of food, quality of food, speed of service and value for price paid.
For 2018, Atlanta United will work most games with seating limited to just the bottom two concourses, keeping some level of scarcity to ticket sales while focusing operations in those areas. (It also allows for a supporters section of 5,000 on the east side of the stadium, one of the largest supporter sections in MLS.) That still leaves a capacity of 55,000, with season tickets sold out months ago, and Gomes is expecting the team to average 45,000 or so per game once again in 2018. Given that the team’s expectations were far exceeded in 2017, it’s hard to argue with that prediction.
Image courtesy Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
This article first appeared in the weekly Soccer Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? Sign up here for your free subscription!