Around the world, fans attend stadia in large numbers, paying to watch athletes take part in physical activity while sitting, eating and drinking for prolonged periods. In our chapter in Sport and Health: Exploring the Current State of Play, we discuss the need for healthier options at sports stadia.
Attending sports matches is traditionally associated with the purchase and consumption of unhealthy food and beverage options such as pies and beer. These questionable consumption practices are encouraged by stadia, which offer fans little choice over the food and drinks that they can purchase. Security measures often prevent fans from bringing their own food and drink into venues, which further impacts on the ability of fans to make healthy food and beverage choices. Fans, then, have few alternatives if they do not wish to consume the limited offerings at stadia. They can eat/drink before entering, attempt to smuggle in their own food and drink, or fast for the duration of the event.
Stadium food has a reputation for being of poor quality, but it is often considered to be a guilty pleasure by fans attending matches. In Australia, the most ‘iconic’ guilty culinary option is the meat pie, with one iconic Australian venue, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), selling over 350,000 pies in 2013 alone. It also sold 600,000 servings of hot chips, 95,000 jam doughnuts, 65,000 burgers and 40,000 pizzas.
Our research has shown that the quality and price of food and drink are one of the biggest points of frustration for fans. Traditionally, though, they have been more concerned about price than the availability of healthy options.
However, fans are increasingly looking for healthy options, with many aware of the greater choice available to those attending North American venues. Here, it is not uncommon for venues to have built-in gardens or farms that supply organic food to the venues’ catering outlets and to the local community. Europe is now responding and a new benchmarking tool for healthy matchday catering, developed by the European Healthy Stadia Network and supported by the British Heart Foundation, is being tested at a number of stadia.
The price of alcoholic drinks is also a point of frustration for many fans, as prices in stadia are typically higher than at other venues. This pricing strategy is not designed to limit the consumption of alcohol in order to encourage a healthier lifestyle, but is aimed at increasing the revenue required to cover excessive rental fees charged by stadia while still making a sizeable profit.
There is some effort to restrict the consumption of alcohol, but more to minimise the incidence of intoxication than in pursuit of good health per se. These measures limiting the consumption of alcohol at venues do not extend to the consumption of unhealthy eating, with no restrictions over portion sizes or excessive consumption of food. Most stadia do not have healthy eating policies, and their partnerships with companies involved in fast food, sweetened soft drinks, alcohol, gambling (and, previously, tobacco) mean that they are compromised in terms of encouraging healthy lifestyles.
The way forward
We are calling on venues to consider the health of spectators and not just their profits. It is time to take active steps to promote good health across all of sport culture. Stadia need to reconsider their traditional sponsors and suppliers (fast food, alcohol, gambling companies), but a number of smaller, immediate steps could also be taken.
We suggest that stadia:
- Offer healthy alternatives that are at a similar or better price than existing offerings, quick to order/be served and easy to eat using one’s hand;
- Provide healthier beverage options, capitalising on the rising popularity of squeezed/pressed juices and smoothies;
- Include accessible nutrition information, particularly nutrient values for stadium food at the point of sale (as is now common on much packaged food), to allow informed decisions on the nutritional value of food at stadia;
- Publish menus online (with prices and nutritional information) so that reasonable decisions on food and beverage options can be made in advance of arrival at sport venues;
Include activities that encourage spectators to break up prolonged periods of sitting (such as the ‘seventh innings stretch’ in North American Baseball) and to be physically active at games.
Finally, stadia in Australia and Europe should consider following the already-noted examples of many North American venues by installing organic gardens to supply healthy produce to their catering outlets.
Sport stadia generally receive significant public funds as well as the hard-earned money of sport fans, who must pay to enter and then are ‘trapped’ inside with little choice but to consume the often-expensive, unhealthy food and drink on offer. Taking greater responsibility for spectators’ healthy consumption will help ensure their return for many years to come. Therefore, healthy spectator diets are, in the long term, good for sport stadia business.
This post was co-authored with Dr Keith Parry, Dr Emma George & Dr Tim Hall, all staff at Western Sydney University, and originally published on the Sports Think Tank Blog. The four authors are contributors to the recent book, “Sport and Health: Exploring the Current State of Play”, edited by Dan Parnell and Peter Krustrup (https://www.routledge.com/Sport-and-Health-Exploring-the-Current-State-of-Play/Parnell-Krustrup/p/book/9781138290228), to be reviewed on idrottsforum.org in the fall of 2018.
Copyright © David Rowe, Keith Parry, Emma George & Tim Hall 2018