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Go to a game at the MCI Center and the one enduring constant, aside from the frustration of yet another injury-riddled, underachieving home team, is that you can count on being treated to an object lesson in hard economic realities.
Remember the Globe Theatre? Today’s glittering, tricked-out sports arenas are its inverse, the cheap seats going not to groundlings sitting in the mud but to purchasers of the vertigo-inducing $40 perches in the upper deck. Ruling-class patrons, meanwhile, command a view from the lower reaches. And woe unto the poor schmuck of an upper-tier fan who, spying row upon row of empty seats in the bowl below, attempts a trespass—as this poor schmuck did, not once but twice, at Abe Pollin’s Chinatown playpen. “Sir, I can’t let you down there,” I was informed on both occasions, and with the same firm, vaguely threatening tone of voice that suggested that my intrusion represented a clear and present danger to the VIPs.
Not long ago, the schmuck obtained press credentials for the arena with the express purpose of checking out the food. In a generation or so, we’ve gone from peanuts and popcorn to overpriced hot dogs and oversized Cokes to designer beers and luxury suites equipped with personal chefs. Sports has become big business, as corporatized as everything else in the culture. Nothing new there. But I was determined to explore to what extent the class stratification that had prevented me from jumping sections was also in play when it came to eating—how much the gastronomic was bound up in the economic.
To sit in the 400-level upper deck is to be made powerfully aware of a fixed hierarchy—and to realize your third-class status in it, behind both lower-bowlers and, of course, luxury-box-holders. The dude in the blue tights who shoots T-shirts into the stands during timeouts isn’t aiming your way, and you have to squint to make out the players. And the food is equivalent to that of a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike, only more expensive: Papa John’s, nachos, hot dogs, fries.
But that’s not the bad thing. The bad thing is catching sight of the fans just one level down, at the white-cloth-covered tables on the mezzanine, idly sipping their waitress-delivered drinks as though they were on the Champs-Elysées. The bad thing is to be given a glimpse of something that looks better and to realize, suddenly, that your lot is sorry indeed. Oh, you can walk the upper-level concourse and sample the confections deemed appropriate for your lot—sweet, fruity smoothies made from a packaged mix; giant, salty soft pretzels; soft ice cream; cotton candy—but your mobility as an eater pretty much ends there. A cheap-seater simply cannot rise above his limited culinary class.
Not even a season ticket, I learned, guarantees you access to the designer beers and wider eating options of the 200-level concourse; a season ticket in the upper tiers gives you only one visit a month to the second-floor Acela Club. If you like, you can use the Acela pass simply to gain access to the ritzier concession stands on the club level, available to the people who pay $75 to $95 for the 100-level seats, or $160,000 to $300,000 for three years in a luxury box. It’s an insidious inducement, a dangled carrot of the good life that awaits a more substantive ticket investment. From the elevator that whisks you there to the carpeted floors to the vases with dried flowers that grace the checkout counters, the club level is such an obvious step up from the by-the-numbers concessions available to the nosebleeders that, upon discovering it, you feel both grateful for the upgrade and outraged to find out what’s been kept from you all this time.
The club-level barbecue is almost as good as it smells, strings of slow-cooked beef flecked with bits of char and topped off with a sweet, tangy sauce—a better sandwich than you can find at a lot of places that claim ’cue as their specialty. The crab cake is another surprise, revealing a better understanding of the classic Maryland style (light on the mayo, modestly detailed, and fried only until outwardly crisp) than the more expensive, curried version on offer at Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse, the open-to-the-public restaurant on the ground floor of the arena. And the warm bread pudding—a dense, layered rendition topped off with a caramel sauce—is worthy competition for that of any midlevel restaurant.
My visit to the club-level concessions served as a kind of pacifier, quelling, if only temporarily, my need to voice any kind of disgust over the action on the court. The Wizards had blown a big lead. But so what? I had eaten well.
I had long known that going to the game is no longer about the game itself—that the action on the court has become merely a catalyst for other, equally interesting events. But when I visited the Acela Club—normally open only to lower-bowl season-ticket-holders, plus the once-a-monthers from the upper tiers—one afternoon, I began to understand the sheer absurdity of the phenomenon. The correlation between price and quality does not, in fact, hold at the high end. The food at Acela, especially in light of the cooking elsewhere on the club level, is a disappointment: five “themed” stations, with varying qualities of buffet-style dishes sitting under heat lamps or in warming trays. Hardly worthy, in other words, of the envy of the common folk. The Mediterranean table is the best, if only because shopping trumps cooking: It offers a good selection of cheeses and olives and breads.
I picked at my plate of cold nibbles for an hour or so, enjoying a Penfolds shiraz and a mellow viognier from R.H. Phillips. But just as the food is a distraction from the game, so is the game a distraction from the food. The more I sipped and noshed, the weirder it became to sit in an arena with a game going on—a game that costs more than most restaurant meals to attend—and not be watching it. Yet the fans all around me with their jerseys worn over their sweaters, the brightly lit advertisements, the PA blaring, “Gilll-bert A-reee-nas”—it all seemed to be intruding on my mediocre meal.
Such would not be the case, I reasoned, if I were to have my own box. Each step up, each purported upgrade, made me crave the ultimate luxury that much more. A couple of weeks later—voilà!—I found myself with a few friends in a corporate suite. A chef was there waiting for us, in his crisp whites and toque. The spread he’d laid out was suitable for an entire office party, an embarrassment of excess for four: crudités, chilled cocktail shrimp, rosemary prime rib, Caesar salad, roasted vegetables. I admit it: I couldn’t resist looking up into the rafters at all the poor schmucks who didn’t have it half as good. At halftime, we were called into the concourse, where a two-tier cart of desserts was parked outside our door—an extravaganza of Snickers pie and Butterfinger cake and the like. I can report that the beef was dry, the salad was uninspired, and the desserts were gooey and overly rich. In fact, nothing I tried that afternoon approached the excellence of the food at the club level.
Which just goes to show you that, at MCI as everywhere else, money may be a guarantee of access, but it’s no guarantee of quality. This is reassuring in a way: Now, having returned to the gloppy nachos and the grease-beaded dogs of the cheaper seats, I can content myself, at least, with the knowledge that schmuckdom is relative. —Todd Kliman
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