From the Press Box: On NFL protests and concession stands

Opinion and Insight

By now even the non-sports fan has become aware of the growing controversy swirling around the NFL and the actions of some players and teams when it comes to the national anthem.

What began as a few players protesting over police treatment of minorities had almost vanished until President Trump poured gas onto the dying embers Friday at a political rally in Alabama, asking the crowd whether they would like it if an NFL owner fired any “sonofabitch” that disrespected the flag or the anthem.

His comments, naturally, blew the situation all to hell, and Sunday saw a variety of responses. Some teams stayed in their locker rooms, some knelt, some stood with arms linked. In every stadium — something the more liberal news outlets downplayed, including increasingly left-wing ESPN — a massive chorus of boos rained down on the players involved, including the home teams.

The controversy swirling around the NFL over protests during the National Anthem exploded last weekend and might erupt even more this week.

No one — no one — is objecting to the right of any player to protest something he finds offensive. I have yet to hear, see or read one report denigrating or arguing the issue which started the whole affair: poor treatment of minorities by police. Some question the level at which such abuses actually occur, but none deny the right of a citizen to protest.

It is the setting, and the target of the protest that so infuriates millions upon millions.

NFL ratings fell more than 10 percent last season, were off another 10 percent already this year and took a beating for the Sunday and Monday night games as word of the petulant acts spread. Just wait until next week, when millions more of televisions will not be turned to NFL games.

The advertisers will be quick to notice, and that will start the dollar-bill chain rolling, which is what will eventually end all of this, for money is the god the NFL bows to.

My angle is a simple one: Protest all you want, but don’t piss on the flag or the anthem. It is your manner of protest, not the protest itself, that upsets me (and millions upon millions) and which, in the end, will cause even fewer to be sympathetic to your cause.

People watch sports to escape the real world. If they wanted politics, they would not be watching football. Mixing the two tends to anger the viewer, who is looking for an escape. The harsh, left-wing turn of ESPN, which is bleeding ratings and subscribers at an alarming rate, should serve as an example: You can anger the customer only so long.

Football players are employees. If the owners said “You shall not protest, or I shall fine you your game check and give it to a veteran-related charity,” the protesting would suddenly stop. Try protesting at your job today or tomorrow. See how your boss likes it. You are free to protest on your time, not the employer’s, and once the owners start to feel a little financial pinch, well …

The right to protest is not in question. The setting very much is, and when the dollars start to leave …

One of those NFL owners is Arthur Blank Jr. He heads the AMB Group, which owns the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United and sundry other entities.

Blank is quickly becoming a hero for doing what he insisted he would do once the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz stadium opened in Atlanta — slash concession stand prices.

Try this at a major sporting event or concert, or even the next high school game you attend.

Concession rights could have been sold for a massive cash payment, but Blank nixed the idea and instead entered into an operator relationship with Levy Restaurants for what amounts to a flat management fee.

The ownership group spent two years surveying Falcon fans and fans of other NFL teams to determine what some of the biggest gripes were. Being gouged at the concession stand and receiving a poor product and poor service routinely ranked at the very top.

“We asked ourselves: How low can we go on beer? How cheap can we make a hot dog, some popcorn, maybe some nachos?” Blank said in a press conference held in early August. “Everywhere we looked, you could get your own refill on Coke. Why couldn’t we do that here?”

So Blank and his ownership group introduced “Fan First” pricing. That 12-ounce Bud Light will cost you $5, insanely cheap by NFL standards, where the average is $7.42. The league average for a hot dog is a shocking $5.29. In Atlanta it is now $2. A 12-ounce Coke, with free refills? $2. Same for popcorn, pretzels and a bottle of water.

When was the last time, at a sporting event, you bought a bottle of water for $2? For $3 you can order nachos with cheese, a slice of pizza or an order of waffle fries. A 20-ounce souvenir Coke (free refills) is just $4, a quarter-pound cheeseburger $5 and chicken tenders $6. All prices will include tax, eliminating the need to make change.

To make it even more convenient, the stadium is ringed with 670 “concession points,” each offering the same items, thus ending the long concourse trips looking for a specific product. And soda refill stations will be separate and self-serve, limiting wait times.

Additional staff have been hired and a premium put on quality and service.

A family of four goes to a game. They order four hot dogs, four waffle fries and four 12-ounce Cokes, which they can refill for free. Cost? $28. Try doing that at your next high school sporting event, let alone major sporting event.

The reaction has been immediate and overwhelmingly positive. To top it off, Blank has locked in the prices for Super Bowl LIII, for the 2020 Final Four. And any college game, concert or event at the stadium must follow the same pricing.

In a word, wow!

I am not a fan of the Falcons, but I just became a fan of Arthur Blank Jr.


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