How food and drink options at the footy are changing

Thousands of fans will fill Australia’s biggest stadiums over the next few weeks, as the AFL and NRL finals series hit top gear.

For many, whatever happens on the field will determine how they feel the next day, the following week or even the entire year.

This emotional – almost bordering on spiritual – connection with a team or league is the backbone of the matchday experience.

But just as important as the action on the field are the choices made by the fans at the concession stand – a meat pie with tomato sauce or a cool beer are essential parts of a sports fan’s life.

But much like how teams and leagues have changed over time, so has the stadium experience and the menus on offer for fans. As stadium operators expand and diversify their food and drink options, the sport fan’s diet continues to change.

The price of beer at Sydney’s Alliance Stadium starts at $9.30 and tops at $13.40 for premium Stone & Wood beer, which is far beyond the retail price at Dan Murphy’s.

Experts say as stadiums have grown bigger and become more advanced, so have the food and drinks they can offer.

Many major sports are no longer played at small suburban grounds; instead they are hosted at modern-day coliseums and precincts which tower over the skyline.

Camera IconA meat pie is a classic at the footy. Credit: News Limited
Food and drink options at stadiums have begun to change.
Camera IconFood and drink options at stadiums have begun to change. Credit: Herald Sun

Why stadium menus are important

The majority of sports fans hold an undying reverence for the traditional food and drink options available at a game – meat pies, hot dogs, sausage rolls, beer and soft drink are the hallmarks of a supporter’s diet.

But for many, these items are much more than something to consume when they are hungry or thirsty – they have always been sold at the footy; they were there at the start of a person’s sports fandom in their formative years.

Western Sydney University school of business lecturer Dr Jess Richards says food and drinks can help foster the “nostalgic” feelings fans have towards their favourite teams and sport.

My Saturday - pie seller
Camera IconMeat pies will always hold a special place in footy fans’ hearts. Jay Town Credit: News Corp Australia

“Those food and drinks often are associated with fans’ memories and they have a lot of nostalgia attached to them,” she said.

“Food and drink are really essential to the component of game day. It’s akin to a kind of ritual and generates a meaningful sense of connection; there’s tradition and nostalgia.

“When we eat or we smell something, it can transport us back into a time in history where there was a really big game or something like that.”

She said fans’ memories of these items are a key part in building their connection with their team and other fans.

“We all have memories of going to a stadium or your local ground and you most likely would have consumed a meat pie or sausage roll, had a beer potentially,” Dr Richards said.

“But those memories that are so connected to those foods, it’s not necessarily that we all crave a lukewarm meat pie.

North Melbourne AFL captain Wayne Carey (L) & Essendon player James Hird holding meat pies during Four'N Twenty promotion at MCG, 09/03/99.
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Australian Rules
Camera IconTraditional footy food and drink options can help bring back fond memories of being at the game. Credit: News Corp Australia

“It’s what that pie represents and it represents a sense of connection to your sports team, but also a sense of connection to the other fans around you and feeling a sense of belonging in that space.”

Dr Richards also said these items can help fuel the escapist and exciting environment which only live sport can provide.

“When eating out at a footy game, it symbolises festivity, excitement builds, atmosphere,” she said.

“I think there’s a level of comfort that comes from eating food that we possibly wouldn’t eat during the week. It serves a purpose in that it’s a bit of an escape from everyday life and it really does add to the atmosphere and the excitement of going to the game.”

1st session
Camera IconFood and drink can help drive the matchday experience. Michael Klein Credit: News Corp Australia

How menus have changed

Over time, stadium menus have changed in two major ways – in price and the variety of items on offer.

Long gone are the days when fans could buy a beer or basic meal for just a few dollars, with prices often stretching into double figures.

Dr Richards says the typical matchday experience is now a larger financial undertaking for most supporters.

“I think we’ve certainly seen the cost of food and beverages increase in stadiums across Australia,” she said.

“A day out with the family could reach well over $200 when you factor in transport, tickets, food and drink purchases.”

Caterers sign at MCG points to current gas crises. Food outlet. 1998 Grand Final. Adelaide Crows v North Melbourne (Kangaroos). MCG.
Camera IconIt used to be a lot cheaper to grab a bite to eat or grab a drink at a game. Credit: News Limited

But she said most fans accept they will need to pay more as part of the matchday experience.

“I think what we need to remember as well is that when you‘re attending a game at a stadium, you will be paying a premium,” Dr Richards said.

“Just like being at an airport or a concert venue, these locations will have really limited competition within them.”

The other change has been in the items on stadium menus.

A greater variety is now offered to cater to a more diverse group of fans and to make use of the improved facilities available.

“I would say stadium menus have typically been rather predictable, with meat pies, hot dogs, chips and burgers dominating, typically washed down with beer or soft drink,” Dr Richards said.

“But we are seeing changes now brought on not only by the spaces and the locations in which these games are happening, but also changes in fan expectations around what their preferences are.

“These new stadiums have the facilities to be able to create more options in what they cook, while in older suburban grounds those facilities just don’t exist.

“There are still affordable options at these new stadiums like meat pies, sausage rolls, hotdogs, all under $10. But we‘re also seeing more varied, higher quality and healthier food and beverage options that for some fans represent better value for money.”

SCG Upgrade
Camera IconStadiums are diversifying and expanding their menus to cater to more fans. Credit: News Limited
Camera IconNew vegan food was offered at Suncorp Stadium for Magic Round this year. Nigel Hallett Credit: News Corp Australia

Dr Richards worked with the Parramatta Eels when their supporters started returning to CommBank Stadium in Western Sydney once Covid-19 restrictions eased.

She talked with fans about what they thought of the stadium experience, with the consensus being they valued a variety of items on the menu.

“Those that wanted to stick to the footy favourites under a fiver could absolutely do that. But there were more options that represented the community in which the stadium exists,” she said,

“Particularly in this area, it’s incredibly demographically diverse culturally, so being able to have noodles and all these different cultural cuisines was really important to the fans because they felt like that they had a place in this new stadium.”

Ells v Tigers Fans
Camera IconParramatta Eels fans value a diverse range of options at CommBank Stadium. Jeremy Piper Credit: News Corp Australia

Are stadiums meeting fan expectations?

Stadium operators have to maintain a delicate balance of catering to new fans with more diverse food and drink options, while not upsetting existing supporters.

When changes are made, they risk alienating people by either pricing them out with fancier items or taking away fan favourites.

The price of items at Sydney‘s newly built Allianz Stadium recently attracted the ire of 2GB radio host Jim Wilson.

Wilson said he appreciated the quality of the food and beverage offerings, but argued the cost of eating and drinking was “exorbitant” and unaffordable for families.

Saturday story - Jim Wilson pic and chat in studio at 2GB ahead of starting on air Monday.
Camera Icon2GB radio broadcaster Jim Wilson said Allianz Stadium’s food and drink options are too expensive. Richard Dobson Credit: News Corp Australia

Hospitality boss Justin Hemmes, whose Merivale group handles catering for the ground, hit back at the criticism.

He argued during a heated interview on Wilson’s show last week that Merivale had introduced a range of products to give people choice.

“It’s not exorbitant,” Hemmes said.

“We have entry point offerings with an improved quality at the same pricing.”

Wilson noted the price of beer starts at $9.30 and tops at $13.40 for premium Stone & Wood beer, which is far beyond the retail price at Dan Murphy’s.

He called on the pub baron to make the food and beverages more affordable, akin to the prices at the alcohol chain or at bargain retailer Costco.

“That is not a fair comparison,” Hemmes argued.

“You’re talking very different businesses and completely different business models. You can’t compare Dan Murphy’s to an operation at the stadium.”

Dr Richards agreed that Allianz Stadium’s prices were fair to the consumer.

“Anyone in Sydney knows that’s quite on par with Sydney drinking prices. I don’t think there is incredible gouging,” she said.

Justin Hemmes
Camera IconHospitality tycoon Justin Hemmes defended the stadium’s prices. Julian Andrews Credit: News Corp Australia

Aussie rules fans fumed earlier this year when celebrity chef and restaurateur Guy Grossi was brought in by the MCG to revamp its menu.

As part of the change up, Red Rooster, Crust Pizza and crispy strips were all controversially dumped, inciting fury from footy fans.

Royal Stacks, Gami Chicken and SPQR Pizza were welcomed into the fold, while a range of vegetarian, halal and kosher options was introduced.

Dr Richards said change should not be viewed negatively just because it is different, but stressed the importance of continuing to produce what fans like.

“Rather than abandoning the traditional experience, it’s about extending and having more options,” she said.

“People might have dietary requirements or just want to eat a little bit healthier when watching their team run out and hopefully beat their opposition.”

Guy Grossi and the MCG
Camera IconCelebrity chef Guy Grossi made polarising changes to the MCG’s menu this year. Alex Coppel Credit: News Corp Australia

The future of stadium food

Going forward, sports fans should expect stadium menus to keep being changed and tinkered with.

As bigger and better grounds are built, operators will continue to use these improved facilities to push boundaries and trial new items.

The expanding nature of sports fandom also means it is important to ensure menus are welcoming to a diverse group of people.

Dr Richards says the rapidly changing pace of the “football fan diet” reflects the ever-evolving nature of sport.

My Saturday - pie seller
Camera IconThere will always be a place for a pie seller at the footy. Jay Town Credit: News Corp Australia
Camera IconBut now stadiums are offering alternative options. Nigal Hallett Credit: News Corp Australia

“I think healthier food options will become more prominent, particularly foods that allow for dietary requirements like gluten free, vegetarian and vegan foods. We’re going to see them increasingly on the menu,” she said.

“I don’t think we can underestimate how important the meat pie is to Australian sports fans and I’m certainly not saying that we get rid of the pie.

“But what these stadiums are able to do is just extend on that and just give people more options. I think if people have more options, they’ll feel more comfortable.

“They’ll feel like their needs are being met and their expectations are being met, and ultimately that’s what will make sure they return to the stadium the following weekend to support their team.”

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