Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thinking like an economist at the Sooner Club Tailgate

As part of the benefit package associated with being a large enough donor to The University of Oklahoma Athletic Department, our group gets two complimentary passes to the Sooner Club Tailgate before each home football game. The event is described as:

Before each home football game, more than 5,000 Sooner Club members are treated to a variety of complimentary food and beverages provided by more than 40 local restaurants and vendors. Special entertainment is provided by the Sooner spirit squads, the Pride of Oklahoma marching band, and our own emcee and DJ.

It is held inside the Mosier indoor practice facility originally used by the football team (before the Sooners discovered the forward pass circa the 1990s—the roof is too low) and currently used by track & field teams. It is almost as large as a football field inside. The overwhelming majority of the floor space from the middle out is occupied by tables and chairs while the surrounding sidelines on both sides host the various vendors of food and beverage.

While I don't actually over analyze this opportunity as described below, I thought it would be a good thought experiment to explore.

Here are some relevant facts to consider as I try to think like an economist:

  • The event opens 2.5 hours before kickoff; I like to be in my seat at least 45 minutes before kickoff.
  • I generally will be on campus 2.5 hours prior to kickoff--I am already in the area naturally but on the other side of campus. I enjoy eating something before the game and I always have done so.
  • The line to get into the tailgate begins forming outside the doors about 30 minutes before it opens. Getting to the front of the line would mean leaving 30 minutes earlier from my house.
  • The event is very crowded for the space and lines are present at nearly every vendor booth constantly.
  • Vendors often run out of some items. Occasionally, one will run out of all items.
  • The event is about a half-mile walk out of my way, which would mean, of course, a half-mile extra in return.
  • There is a good variety of food offered considering only tailgate-likely foods. The food is very similar to what is offered elsewhere inside and outside the stadium. More on this in the strategy below.
  • Generally, I attend the tailgate with my 8-year-old daughter.
  • Just to be clear this is an all-you-can-eat event including all-you-can-drink with soft drinks, bottled water, and beer offered. The beer offered includes real beer like Shiner Bock and that from the local microbrewery Coach’s Brewhouse along with nonsense like Budweiser, Bud Light, and other forms of badly flavored water.
  • The two complimentary Sooner Club Tailgate tickets are part of the package for the stadium tickets my group purchases including the season donation. Receiving the tickets cannot be avoided and does not factor into our decision to purchase our stadium tickets. Regardless, once I’m at the game, it would be a sunk cost even if we had explicitly purchased the tickets for the purpose of attending the tailgate in the future. More on this in the strategy.
  • You basically can’t take food or drink out of the event, but only beer is really monitored. A bottled water or some of the packaged goods like Hostess donuts pass inspection. The layout of the facility and its surroundings preclude the risk that someone would make a repeated run in and out distributing food to outsiders.
  • A normal plate at one of the vendors inside the tailgate would probably be priced outside the tailgate on game day at between $8 and $12.

Here are some irrelevant facts to disregard:
  • The Sooner Club sells tickets at the door priced at $30 for adults and $15 for children 12 and under. Since it is just me and my daughter and we have tailgate tickets already, these price points are not important. This is the first lesson. To determine the value of the event to me, I must consider my opportunity cost in obtaining it--the value of the next best alternative foregone. The price of the tickets at the door is not relevant.
  • A normal plate at one of the vendors would probably be sold at the vendor's primary place of business on a normal day at between $5 and $8. Also not relevant and in this same vein, a hot dog in 1940 cost $.30.

Here is my thinking and strategy:

Do I attend?
  • If the weather is bad (rain or snow or high, very cold winds), the decision not to attend the tailgate is easy. The walk over is unprotected from the elements. I’d rather stay warm and dry in the Student Union and pay for the same meal. The price of my food thus at most equals the amount at which my daughter and I value being warm and dry. Remember, the tickets, even if explicitly purchased before the season, would be a sunk cost at this point.
  • Otherwise, I will generally attend unless there are some special circumstances like meeting friends from out of town before the game. Again, the price of food purchased as an alternative would be equal to or less than the value I place on meeting the friends. So far this year I am 3 for 3 in attendance. I must need better friends :).

Do I get there early to get to the head of the queue before it opens?

  • No. The food is good, but that isn't really important. It must already be good enough because I am attending. What matters is the range of opportunities within the tailgate (the best food relative to the worst food), and all this leads us to the expected food. Remember that I said vendors do run out. Presumably the highest demanded food has the greatest chance of running out. Also, there are varying lines of people within the tailgate waiting to get each vendor’s food. The best food will have the longest and quickest forming lines. So, I was wrong before? Here is where thinking like an economist helps and leads me to the answer not to get there early.
  • It is unlikely that there is much difference between the vendors for the typical consumer. If you have very atypical tastes, this might be a reason to get there early. More likely it would be a reason not to attend as the cost would be too high. Snobby foodies can’t afford to attend “free” tailgates.
  • If there were much of a difference, the line to get in would form that much earlier and the fight inside would be that much more intense. It is hard to beat the crowd when price is not a rationing tool.
  • I like to watch as much football as possible on Saturdays. My daughter can't walk as fast as me. Leaving early or rushing across campus to get to the front of the line is costly. And we can safely assume it isn't worth it. The food isn't likely to be that much better than the competition outside, isn't likely to be greatly different once inside, and isn't likely to all run out—not if the Sooner Club really intends this as an enticement to be a big donor. 

Am I picky about what I get to eat?

  • No. While not snobby, I do consider myself a foodie. The food here is good, and some is better than others. Do I scout out my options on the website before the game knowing some vendors drop in and out? Do I do an initial recon mission once first in the facility to plan my attack? No and no. Remember, there is a limit to how good and how bad the food can be, and the internal lines will smooth out the differences for the typical consumer. I do consider myself fairly typical in this case.
  • An example: Bubba’s BBQ is very good. Burger King is an average burger. Bubba’s BBQ is at the back, and the line moves slowly. Burger King is at the front and is quick. There are a lot of trade offs here, but they most are negligible except for my time. The marginal benefit of the BBQ over the burger is greatly outweighed by the marginal cost of 10 minutes longer spent waiting. My goal is to get in, get something decent to eat, get over to the game.
  • You just can’t go that wrong or that right in this situation. There is no grand arbitrage to be played here. Grab some food. Attempting to find the optimal solution is costly to the point of ridiculous. The margin of error on food choice is much, much lower than the risk of wasting your time. In short, you're fearing regretting the wrong thing (food choice instead of time spent).
  • The one area where I will exert a little choosiness is beverage. My preference is beer, but my first choice, Coach's Brewhouse, is usually out of reach because the line is too long. Moving down the preference chain until time spent is worth the taste usually lands me at Blue Moon or Shiner Bock. Again, the best choice is made at the marginal trade off.

How much do I eat?
  • It is not that good; hence, it is not worth getting stuffed. In fact, I think the risk of overeating is high; so I am careful to be moderate--unlike I was in expounding upon this post.

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