Top food chains in sports arenas: Dippin' Dots, Papa John's dominate

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

When you think of eating food at a pro sports event, you might think of hot dogs, chicken fingers, or french fries.

But it’s actually pizza and ice cream that reign supreme—at least in terms of franchise locations inside NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL stadiums, arenas and ballparks.

According to data gathered by FranchiseOpportunities.com and shared first with Yahoo Finance, the two most popular chains in pro sports arenas are Dippin’ Dots and Papa John’s.

Dippin’ Dots, the Kentucky-headquartered maker of tiny nitrogen-frozen ice cream pellets, has 20 total locations across the big leagues, which is the most of any chain; Papa John’s is second with 14 locations. (Interestingly, although pizza and ice cream are the most popular types of chain foods, only 9 total arenas have both.)

Dippin’ Dots is the top chain in both MLB (8 ballparks) and in the NBA (4 arenas), while Papa John’s reigns supreme in NFL stadiums, with 4 locations. (Four may not seem like many, but it’s four times as many as any other chain—no other national chain is in more than one NFL stadium.)

In the NHL, the top chain is Tim Hortons, which is owned by Restaurant Brands International (QSR) and is in 7 hockey arenas. That one is no surprise, considering that it’s a Canadian company named for a famous NHL player.

Keep in mind this data does not measure revenue, but strictly number of franchise locations of food chains.

The NFL dominance of Papa John’s (PZZA) is particularly interesting given the recent bad run Papa John’s has had as a business. On a November 2017 earnings call, Papa John’s reported flat sales numbers, and CEO John Schnatter blamed the disappointing report on the NFL: “The NFL has hurt us by not resolving the current debacle to the players’ and owners’ satisfaction,” he said. “NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders.”

Two weeks later, the company publicly apologized and attempted to walk back his comments. And one month after that, Schnatter stepped down as CEO. (He will remain its chairman.) Now it’s unclear what the company will do next in terms of the NFL: Will it continue to be an official league sponsor? Will it pull back on its NFL advertising? And will Schnatter remain the face of Papa John’s and star of its advertising approach?

These questions can extend to its presence in four NFL stadiums: One or two years from now, perhaps it will be in fewer stadiums, rather than in more of them. (Papa John’s did not reply to a request for comment.)

A family eats before an Atlanta Falcons preseason game on Aug. 31, 2017. (Catherine Newman/Oath)

And there’s a larger trend growing in all the major sports leagues: local, independent food vendors are gaining steam over national fast-food brands. (The NFL is the league that has the most local vendors in its stadiums.) That shift is on full display in newer venues like Barclays Center in New York, where high-end New York restaurants like Brooklyn Taqueria, Brooklyn Bangers & Dogs, and Carla Hall have a presence.

And the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., home of the Atlanta Falcons, has garnered attention for its many local vendors (plus Chick-fil-A, which is a national chain but headquartered in Atlanta, and also Papa John’s) and even more so for its extremely low food prices.

The trend toward local food may mean a changing of the guard is coming down the road to sports arenas. But for now, Papa John’s and the “ice cream of the future” reign.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering media, sports and tech. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more:

$2 Hot Dogs: The story behind Atlanta Falcons’ low food prices at new stadium

Papa John’s, Keurig, and Tiki torch: Brands could not escape politics in 2017

Papa John’s attempt reversal on NFL protests

How NFL sponsors are reacting to Trump’s national anthem crusade

Follow Yahoo Finance on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn