Steak, cheese, and a victory for sports fans

Philadelphia Eagles, in concession to angry residents, let fans bring food to stadium.

It was the highest intensity debate in Philadelphia since James Madison & Co. met here to craft the United States Constitution.

But after a two-week food fight between Philadelphia Eagles football fans and the team's management over their inalienable right to bring their beloved hoagie sandwiches into the team's new stadium, score a victory for "We the people."

The Eagles management dropped "food" from its list of banned items at Lincoln Financial Field. Freedom now rings in the city of brotherly love, although sandwiches and other food must be wrapped in clear plastic ,so security can more easily verify what fans are bringing to the park.

The outcome highlights the tension between sports fans who see stadiums as public facilities and team owners who are perceived as increasingly commercial in outlook. Any hint that winning - or simply enjoying the game - takes a back seat to making money can roil customers.

"The fans feel like the stadium belongs to them," says Philadelphia native Joe Queenan, the author of a recent book chronicling the lives of sports fans. "The people who take over these teams are so estranged from the fan base."

"Hoagiegate" boiled down to this: The Eagles insisted July 15 that outside food was a security risk. Fans countered that the team just wanted to make an extra buck. Higher ticket prices at the new stadium meant that bringing their own sandwiches would be one of the few ways to economize.

Fan unrest was fueled when a popular Philadelphia talk radio host was suspended for comparing the Eagles food policy to policies of Nazi Germany. A few days later, a Pennsylvania House member sponsored a bill that would prohibit any sports venue supported by public money from banning outside food.

Fan estrangement is especially acute in this blue-collar town, where fans wear their hearts (and stomachs) on their sleeves. Indeed, Philadelphia is not just any football town. It is renowned for its loyal but raucous football fans. They begin tailgating just after daybreak on game days, and have been know to pelt opposing players with snowballs and boo them when they are being carried off the field on a stretcher.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, the grandson of a movie theater magnate, is still viewed as an outsider by many fans. A Boston native, he bought the Eagles in 1994 after failing to purchase the New England Patriots.

Most season ticket holders interviewed said they believed the hoagie ban was a thinly veiled attempt to boost concession sales. Restaurant owner Mike St. Clair derided the idea that terrorists might bring an exploding hoagie. "If they would have just come out and say, 'We want our vendors to make more money,' I would have understood," he says. "But to say it's because of 9/11, it's a joke."

Experts attribute the uproar over an Italian ham sandwich stuffed with peppers and onions, in part to resentment over the increasingly corporate face of sports. The Philadelphia-based Lincoln Financial Group paid the Eagles $140 million for naming rights - more than twice the cost of building the old Veterans Stadium in 1971. And many season-ticket holders had to purchase one-time personal seat licenses - essentially the right buy season tickets at the new stadium - costing at least $1530.

So many fans considered the additional burden of buying food at the stadium - instead of bring ing a cheesesteak or stuffing an apple in their pocket - as a slap in the face. Cheesesteaks, which resemble a warm hoagie, are "dear to the heart and heartburn of Philly fans," says Paul Rosier, who teaches history at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

But management and some fans defend the higher costs, since amenities at the new stadium are vast improvements over Veterans Stadium - which was generally considered one of the league's worst football stadiums.

Nor would a no-food policy have been unprecedented. "There are all sorts of venues where you can't bring in your own food," says Temple University economist Michael Leeds here.

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