A handful of schools are already doing it, and they are making six-figure revenues
SMU's Rick Hart and Texas A&M's Eric Hyman run athletic departments that share a state, once shared a conference and still have enough in common to play each other in multiple sports, including football this season.
But Texas A&M fans who land tickets to the Aggies' Sept. 20 game at SMU's Ford Stadium will have the opportunity to do something that is forbidden in their own stadium: Buy a beer.
After a successful trial run during basketball season that netted the athletic department a six-figure windfall over the course of just 12 games, SMU is one of a handful of schools that will begin selling beer and wine in its on-campus stadium.
And with athletic departments getting ready to absorb multimillion-dollar obligations in new player benefits thanks to a wave of litigation and NCAA restructuring, it's plausible that others might soon follow suit.
"It seems like it's going that way, and I think you'll see more doing it," said Virginia Tech athletics director Whit Babcock. "But it's a cultural issue at a place of higher education where there's a tradition (of not selling it). I don't know that it will be one of the top things on my agenda. But as more people do it … I'll definitely be watching."
Babcock has the unique perspective of recently leading athletic departments with two very different approaches to the issue of alcohol sales. At Virginia Tech, which hired him in January, alcohol at football games is only available in luxury suites. At Cincinnati, his previous job, beer was sold at practically every on-campus sporting event — including green beer on St. Patrick's Day to help attract fans to a baseball game.
Whereas Babcock has no plans to push for alcohol sales at events in the more conservative, rural campus community at Virginia Tech, availability of beer wasn't just non-controversial at Cincinnati, it was viewed as a given in a more competitive, pro-oriented market.
"In my 2½ years there, we didn't have any alcohol-related incidents, so it worked," Babcock said. "It opened my eyes that it could be done in a responsible way."
Though the NCAA does not sell alcohol at its championship events, including the men's basketball tournament, it's one of the few unregulated areas in the pantheon of NCAA rules. Even conferences — aside from the SEC, which has a league-wide prohibition — leave the issue up to individual schools.
But the majority of high-profile programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision have chosen not to go in that direction for reasons that range from philosophical/religious to concerns about crowd control to unease about the appearance of profiting off alcohol.
"With students and families, that's just not the environment we want to create," Pittsburgh athletics director Steve Pederson said.
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There's some evidence, however, that the pendulum may start swinging the other way in the near future. Though schools like Houston, Louisville, Memphis and Tulane — all located in bigger cities — have sold beer for years in their venues, the practice is now being embraced at land grant institutions.
West Virginia implemented beer sales at football games in 2011, generating upward of $500,000 in new revenue while seeing fewer incidents of rowdy fan behavior related to binge-drinking outside the stadium. Minnesota sold beer and wine at TCF Bank Stadium as part of a two-year pilot program beginning in 2012 and reported a $181,678 profit last season. Arizona recently implemented beer sales at home baseball games, played in a venue off-campus. Then, in one of his first big moves as Texas' new athletics director earlier this year, Steve Patterson added beer and wine sales at a handful of sports – including men's and women's basketball – as part of a trial run that seems almost certain to expand to football down the road.
West Virginia implemented beer sales at football games in 2011, generating upward of $500,000 in new revenue while seeing fewer incidents of rowdy fan behavior related to binge-drinking outside the stadium. (Photo: Rob Christy, USA TODAY Sports)
SMU did something similar in January when it re-opened 7,000-seat Moody Coliseum after a $40 million renovation. Though basketball games at SMU are geared toward the intimate, on-campus college experience, the university is located in the middle of a major city where Hart said he repeatedly heard the expectation from new or casual fans that a night on the town – whether to a sporting event, a play or something else – would include the opportunity to buy beer and wine.
But it wasn't a decision the school took lightly. Before alcohol sales were approved at Moody, SMU ran it past a presidential board, the student affairs office, student leaders and worked with Aramark, its concession provider, to come up with implementation standards.
For instance, if a 21-or-older student enters the venue, they get a wristband with three pull-tabs, and one is torn off for each beer they buy. Non-students are limited to one beverage per ID, per trip to the concession stand.
"We made sure our criteria was at least as strong as or stronger than industry standards, so we can say, 'Hey, we're doing this responsibly and putting a lot of thought into it,' " Hart said. "We also let the students know if this goes well, it'll continue; if it doesn't go well, it may not. They understood that.
"There's a revenue component to it, for sure, but it was part of the experience fans wanted. And we had zero alcohol-related arrests. We didn't see a spike in any type of behavioral issues. I understand why it's a topic that needs to be vetted, and it's not for everybody."
Hyman, by contrast, said it would be an "extreme stretch" to envision Texas A&M selling beer in the stands even if the SEC changed its policy down the road (which commissioner Mike Slive told USA TODAY Sports there has been no sentiment to do).
"It's a combination of things," Hyman said. "It's college athletics. It's the culture of the area. If society changes, there could be changes."
The changes are more likely, however, to come from budgetary pressures. After conference realignment and the latest round of TV deals, alcohol is one of the few untapped revenue streams. Meanwhile, athletic departments will likely have to add benefits like full cost of attendanwce scholarships, increased long-term health care coverage and expanded meal availability to their budgets over the next year or two.
Many will face a crunch about where that money is going to come from. And beer sales could very well be the answer for more and more of them.
"Primarily economics would drive it," Alabama athletics director Bill Battle said. "The disadvantages are security and fan behavior and other things that go with that. And so it's a trade-off. It is done successfully in places throughout the country. We're in the Bible Belt; we may not be the first ones to do that. But certainly we would consider it. Whether we do it or not, I don't know."
Contributing: George Schroeder