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Thu, Aug. 22

Chewing on baseball's new diet at a park near you

With the opening of the baseball season this week, the experts have been busy predicting the winners and losers on the field of play. Here's another prediction that may interest you: The food you eat at the ballpark will be healthier than it's ever been. Maybe.

Even if some of us can't distinguish a slider from a curveball, there's one thing we all have in common: We all eat. Food is part of the overall fan experience at a sporting event. Any sports marketer who underestimates the importance of food and drink - for the fans and the bottom line - does so at his own risk.

And the food we eat at the ballpark is changing.

When New York City's Board of Health voted in December to ban the use of trans fats in all the borough's eateries by July 2008, it set off a domino effect among cities, counties and states across the country. Philadelphia has since banned trans fats from most dishes served in city restaurants. Los Angeles County, along with 19 states, is considering similar action.

For companies who operate concessions at multiple sports and entertainment venues, the handwriting is on the wall. It makes no sense to serve food products sans trans fats in some locations, and food products containing trans fats in others. What to do? Economics dictates a switch across the board.

So it came as no surprise when Aramark, the Philadelphia-based food services company that operates concessions at 13 Major League and 10 Minor League ballparks, announced recently that it's eliminating trans fats from its menus, beginning with Opening Day this year.

If a recent report in the Arizona Republic is to be believed, the change can't come soon enough. Fast food chain Carl's Jr. is recycling the oil used to cook fries at its restaurants in Arizona to use as fuel in the company's vehicles. Think about that the next time you order fries with your burger.

The elimination of trans fats is great news for those of us dedicated to eating healthier at the ballpark. But for the rest of us, who can't resist the call of fatty, cholesterol-laden delicacies, fear not. The elimination of trans fats in cooking oil and processed foods doesn't mean that ballpark staples - such as hot dogs, burgers, fries and nachos - are about to become extinct. Or fat free.

At the same time that trans fats are being eliminated, ballparks are expanding on a tradition that has been a crowd pleaser at Minor League ballparks for years: The all-you-can-eat ticket. For a set fee, fans receive a ticket to the game and can gorge themselves on a limited menu of items, usually hotdogs, peanuts, popcorn, nachos and soda.

Major League teams are imitating the minors. This year, the Los Angeles Dodgers converted a special section into 3,000 all-you-can eat seats at a price of $35 in advance and $40 on game day. The Dodgers tested the concept three times late last season and Dodgers executive vice president and chief operating officer Mary Greenspun told The New York Times, "The response was overwhelmingly positive."

Fans at other ballparks around the country will also be able to indulge - or over-indulge - on delicacies loaded with fat and calories. My vote for the best - or worst - new indigestion special is brought to us courtesy of the Gateway Grizzlies (Independent Frontier League).

The Grizzlies are introducing an item they not so humbly named "Baseball's Best Slider." The baseball themed concoction consists of a thin-sliced, steam-grilled, square-shaped burger topped with cheese and grilled onions, then breaded and deep-fried. You can purchase a pair of the burgers for $4. No word on whether a lifetime supply of cholesterol drugs is included.

Healthier food at the ballpark may be a reality, but another reality is that governments can't legislate people's tastes and preferences. As long as some of us are willing to indulge in unhealthy options, concessionaires will continue to feed those desires.

Here's to the ballpark ban on trans fats. But don't forget to pack the Pepto-Bismol along with the sun block.

(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He currently teaches Sport Management and the Business of Sports at Eastern New Mexico University and the University of Wyoming)

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