All-You-Can-Eat Seat, Heartburn Included

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks. And some more. And more.

A growing trend in all-you-can-eat seating at sports venues is making baseball's summer chorus sound more like "Take Me Out to the Buffet."

Dozens of arenas, stadiums and tracks have offered tickets that come with unlimited snacks. The seats have been a hit with fans, a moneymaker for the venues and a worry for obesity-conscious health officials.

Instead of paying for a ticket and multiple trips to the concession stand, the ticket includes everything and costs about 50 percent more. Alcohol and desserts are sold separately.

"I don't think you're ever going to get your value from it food-wise, but convenience-wise, I think it is a heck of a lot nicer than waiting in line for 20 minutes," said Drew Nurenberg, 30, of Malvern, Pa., who bought all-you-can-eat seats with his wife for a Philadelphia Flyers game last month.

Nearly half of the 30 major league baseball teams have added the all-inclusive seats, and others are looking into it. The NHL has nine teams offering the deal; the NBA has six. The idea has not caught on with the NFL, but NASCAR has put it in overdrive, selling the tickets at multiple racetracks.

Fans get bargain grub, and the venues are able to charge a premium for foods they already buy cheap in bulk. All-you-can-eat ticket holders get a special wristband that allows unlimited trips to a cash-free concession stand, avoiding a wait in long lines.

The result is like a giant hot dog on a hook - a way for teams to lure new fans to their games or get old ones to switch to higher-priced sections. In the past, unlimited food and drink was reserved for luxury suites, which cost up to six figures a year.

The Los Angeles Dodgers first offered all-you-can-eat seats in their right-field bleacher pavilion last season. They averaged 2,200 fans per game in a section that typically opened only when the left-field bleachers were full.

Last June, the Kansas City Royals opened four little-used upper-deck sections along the right-field line for select games. This season, they're adding a section - for a total of 500 seats - and making them available at every game.

"When these were first started, there was a lot of unused inventory, a lot of real estate in the ballpark where people never visited before," said Joe Strohm, vice president of ticket sales for the St. Louis Cardinals, who have offered the seats since 1996. "This was a way to get people to visit those areas."

Most all-you-can-eat seats cover only the basics: hot dogs, popcorn and soda.

"Just what the world doesn't need is another way to get as much food as they want whenever they want it," said Jeanne Goldberg, a professor of nutrition science at Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition.

The unlimited quantity has turned some sporting events into games of can-you-top-this in the stands, with fans competing to see who can shovel the most hot dogs down their gullets. But for the most part, the scene is the same as in any other section.

"People knocking that stuff back isn't exactly the prettiest thing to watch," Nurenberg said. He added: "People looked like they were taking advantage of it, but not overly taking advantage."

Some stadiums have tried to become more health-conscious. The Pittsburgh Pirates offer salad bars. The Oakland Athletics have stands with fruit cups and garden burgers.

"If you did start incorporating salads or veggie dogs or things that aren't maybe cost-efficient, that terrific value of $40 or $45 is going to start costing people $50, $55, $60 in our market," said Mark Tilson, vice president of sales and marketing for the Royals. "All of a sudden it's not such a great deal."

But fans do consider it a deal, even at venues where they can bring their own foods, as at NASCAR races.

"It's really been a big hit for us," said Scott Cooper, spokesman for Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

Lowe's was the first track to test-drive an all-you-can-eat grandstand, offering unlimited food and nonalcoholic drinks to about 1,100 fans at a Sprint Cup race in October. The seats were priced from $59 to $99.

Lowe's will offer more such seats at the NASCAR Sprint All-Star race in May and the Coca-Cola 600. Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and the Auto Club Speedway plan to offer similar deals.

The seats also are proving popular with the NBA.

The Miami Heat tried the seats at a Dec. 13 game, and they were such a success the team added 18 more games this season, selling about 100 tickets per game in 10 upper-deck sections. Five other NBA teams - Milwaukee, Minnesota, Philadelphia, San Antonio and Seattle - also sell all-you-can-eat tickets.

The NFL remains mostly a holdout to binge seating, but there is an option for big spenders: The Houston Texans last year opened the 500-seat Director's Club, offering unlimited food and drinks. Memberships for the 2009 season cost $1,250.

Nurenberg said he might consider returning to the buffet - if they expand the options.

"Would I do it again? Probably, if they changed the food around," Nurenberg said. "In the current state, I probably wouldn't do it again."

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