Thursday, November 03, 2011

NFL Concessions Meet Economic Tradeoffs

While at the Patriots-Steelers NFL game earlier this season, I made a classic economics observation: tradeoffs are everywhere. It was partway into the second quarter, and dinner time was approaching. Because our seats were up in the highest section possible, this meant short lines at the concession stands, but the quality of food available was poor. The economist in me couldn’t help but see the natural connection to consumer theory, specifically indifference curves.

Indifference curves express how much utility, or happiness, comes from various combinations of goods. Any two points along the same indifference curve must represent two combinations of goods that make you equally happy. Additionally, points on different indifference curves represent different levels of happiness. In terms of the shape of indifference curves, economists make standard assumptions, such as more is better and averages are preferred to extremes. However, consider what the indifference curve mappings would look like if the goods being represented are quality of food and queue length (that is, the length of time you expect to wait in line .)

In this case, a long queue length is undesirable (economists call this a “bad”).That means that if you’re going to tolerate a longer line, the food quality must improve for you to be equally well off; this translates graphically into the increasing shape of the curve above. Also, for any given queue length, a higher quality of food makes you better off, so the level of happiness represented by IC2 must be higher than that of IC1. Finally, because averages are still better than extremes, the bowedness of the curves must be in the northwest direction. This is illustrated on the following graph:

A and C are two possible consumption bundles, while B represents the average of this bundle. Because B is preferred to A and C and you know that consumers are happier with better food and shorter lines (the southeast direction), the curve must be bowed in this way.

As you can see from the graph above, the choice as to whether or not it makes sense to travel throughout the stadium for better food is a simple consumer choice problem. My optimal decision rests on the relative happiness I get from higher food quality versus not waiting in line. What did I choose? A simple burger with french fries in exchange for a short line, so I could watch Brady and the Patriots blow it!

Discussion Questions:

1. What if instead of modeling “queue length” on the vertical axis, you want to show the indifference curves between “food quality” and the “amount of the game you watch from your seat.” How would the shape of the indifference curves change? Which direction represents a higher level of happiness from one curve to another?

2. Suppose that the value of watching the game diminishes because your team is crushing the opposition. How would this change the shape of your indifference curves between queue length and food quality?

3. What if averages are no longer better than extremes? How would that alter the shape of the indifference curves shown above?

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