For decades, college football venues—mostly stadiums on campus owned and operated by the universities themselves—shied away from alcohol sales. There was good reason for it too. Colleges didn't want to be in the business of selling a product more than half of the students couldn't legally purchase. There was the idea that sales would somehow be promoting alcohol abuse, and there's always the risk that alcohol consumption at games could lead to security or legal issues.
But as college football becomes a bigger and bigger force in the sports world, perhaps it's time that college football puts on its big-boy pants and begins selling beer to fans.
There's a gold mine out there that college programs aren't currently tapping—pun intended. Alcohol sales generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for venues that do offer beer sales, and that doesn't even take into account the money brewers and distributors will pay to have their beer on the menu.
Football and beer go together like hot dogs and mustard, so let's put it on the menu right next to them, shall we?
Anyone who has ever been to a college football stadium on game day has either first attended—or at least walked through—the tailgater.
Sometimes before the sun even rises, college football fans gather in the parking lots and areas surrounding the stadium, set up their grills and, yes, crack open a cold beer in preparation for the big game. Like any sports-related social gathering, beer is a staple of the tailgate tradition, and millions of cans and bottles are downed each autumn Saturday at campuses around the nation.
Tailgating activities have even developed around beer. Eons ago, ping-pong tables were actually used to play ping-pong in fraternity houses and dorms all over America. Nowadays, beer-pong is the “sport” of choice, and the game has made its inevitable jump to tailgaters. Whether you're a novice or a campus beer-pong legend, chances are you've played at least a few rounds at the last tailgate party.
Some colleges restrict tailgate hours, and many force an end to the party either at kickoff or at halftime. Many fans choose to soak up every last drop and every last minute outside the stadium in part because it will be their last drop of beer until they decide to leave the stadium for the evening.
Wouldn't it be better to have those fans inside the stadium cheering on Dear Old U? The availability of beer inside might just spur those last few reluctant fans to buy a ticket and find a seat.
Don't fool yourself. Your college's “dry” stadium is only dry in the cheap seats. If you're willing to shell out the truly huge dollar amounts to get a luxury suite at the stadium, you can rest assured it will come fully furnished—including alcohol.
The big donors expect to have an assortment of adult refreshments on hand, and no university in its right mind is going to refuse a top-dollar donor such a simple request. The offerings to suite holders often extend beyond beer as well. Top-shelf liquor and cocktails are available too.
Season ticket holders pay big bucks for their season tickets when you consider the face value of the seats plus the “ticket license” top programs require. Yet despite shelling out thousands of dollars, these loyal fans are left high and very dry unless they're willing to add a couple of zeros to the end of their football-ticket-spending budget every season.
In 2011, the latest season for which the NCAA has published official records, Michigan, FCS Appalachian State (N.C.), D2 Grand Valley State (Mich.) and D3 Wisconsin-Whitewater led the NCAA in average attendance (with six or more home games).
Of those four programs, at least one allows at least some alcohol sales.
David Ablauf, associate athletic director for media and public relations, told us there are no alcohol sales at Michigan Stadium. Not even those generous souls rewarded with a luxury suite can sip the suds. “Michigan Stadium is completely alcohol-free on Michigan Football Saturdays.”
Troy Heustess, assistant athletic director for facilities at Appalachian State, confirmed that ASU does offer beer sales to ticket holders in “club seating.” Fans can receive a beer purchase permit on a per-game basis. Those who hold suites at the stadium are responsible to furnish their own alcoholic beverages, which can include liquor.
At Grand Valley State, alcohol is not sold, but “suite holders can have alcohol in the suites that they purchase themselves, but it cannot leave the suite,” according to Tim Nott, sports information director.
Tom Fick, sports information director at Wisconsin-Whitewater, said, “We do not sell alcohol at any athletic event.” As for luxury suites, “We're D3. Our 'luxury' is basically under a roof. We don't have any suites,” and no one is allowed alcohol.
In at least the case of Appalachian State, which mirrors many policies in place at the FBS and PCS level, the availability of alcohol depends on the amount of money you're willing to give the university. Buying a ticket isn't good enough. Instead, you need to pony up enough dough to buy “club seats,” or at many institutions, even a luxury suite.
Those of us left in the cheap seats will just have to do without, even if there is alcohol available elsewhere in the stadium.
It's no secret that college athletics, by and large, is a money loser for the vast majority of institutions. In fact, a report published by the NCAA itself found that just 19 Division I FBS programs turned a profit during fiscal years 2004 through 2006, and just over half (67) turned a profit on their football program when considered alone.
With the economic downturn, the share of money-making programs is sure to shrink even further. Universities are in desperate need of a cash infusion, and big names like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors might be just the companies willing to shell out that cash.
Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard told USA Today, “I'm torn on the idea of making [alcohol sales] available to everyone in the stadium. While I was once against it, I also realize that it's clearly a significant revenue stream in a day when we have to create revenue.”
Minnesota recently announced it would add beer to its menu at TCF Bank Stadium to keep those cold Gophers fans warm.
The NCAA doesn't have a rule against alcohol sales, but does prohibit advertising and sales during its championship events. Host venues are even forced to cover up alcohol advertising that may already be on site.
But the NCAA is silent on alcohol sales at regular-season events on campus.
There's also the viewpoint, as expressed by Cincinnati's AD Mike Thomas, that alcohol consumption might be better controlled if distribution were handled by the venue.
“Rather than people trying to sneak in alcohol, they can buy it in a controlled environment.”
Thomas admits that won't completely solve the problem, but it could at least reduce the impact.
So if fans are drinking outside before the event and they're sneaking the booze in to drink during the event, why shouldn't universities be getting a piece of that particularly large and lucrative pie?
That brings us back to whether it “sends the right message.” Universities are afraid to risk being seen as associating themselves with or glorifying alcohol consumption. But just a brief glance at the latest ads from Budweiser, Dos Equis or even this epic Johnnie Walker ad, and you'll see there aren't any alcohol manufacturers out there promoting alcohol abuse or drunken behavior.
Besides, how many fans in any given college football stadium these days are actually students? With the grand shrines of the gridiron holding well in excess of 100,000 people, the vast majority of fans in attendance are alumni, parents or others who aren't worried about getting that term paper finished by Monday morning.
Any adult over the age of 21 can order alcohol at any NFL game. The same goes from the rest of the major professional sports. We dare say college football has a fanbase bigger than all of the professional sports, and with 125 FBS programs taking the field in 2013, there are as many teams in this one division as all of the four major league sports (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB) combined.
With such a large majority of fans in attendance of legal age to purchase alcohol, why shouldn't universities allow beer sales?
Maybe a little prodding is all that's needed. As fan demand increases, so too will the pressure to offer alcohol at football games. The universities might also be pleasantly surprised with the outcome as well. A pilot program of one or two seasons might be the best way for colleges to prove to themselves that we fans can control ourselves. It's not like we need beer to make complete fools of ourselves, right?