LSU’s plan to broaden beer sales beyond suites and club-level seats inside Tiger Stadium would start with a “beer garden” in the stadium. Other colleges, such as the University of Texas, have sold as much as $5 million worth of alcohol over two football seasons—$1.3 million of which was given to the school’s athletics department. Photography courtesy LSU
Emary McGehee has worked at LSU home football games for the past three seasons, helping fans find their seats, enforcing the no smoking policy—and dealing with lots of drunk people, some of whom have an unfortunate tendency to vomit on themselves and others.
“It ruins the game for a lot of people who don’t go there to drink,” she says.
Outside of suites and club seats, LSU doesn’t sell alcohol at its football games, but that may change very soon. If the Southeastern Conference approves, you could be visiting an official Tiger Stadium “beer garden” as early as this fall.
Fans, including those who may be underage, routinely sneak liquor past game-day staffers and into the stadium. McGehee fears adding beer into the mix will lead to even more drunken behavior, and says it would be hypocritical for LSU to continue the liquor ban while profiting from beer sales.
But Frank McMains, an LSU fan and former bar owner, brings up a different hypocrisy: Why are only the privileged few in the premium areas officially allowed to drink alcohol in Tiger Stadium? Meanwhile, people are routinely sneaking booze into the stadium and drinking surreptitiously or getting hammered at tailgates before they head into the game.
“If you start letting people drink in the stadium, will it get worse for a while?” McMains says. “It might. But I would argue that most of the problems that we have are because we don’t honestly address it.”
Current SEC policy bans alcohol sales at sporting events except in privately leased areas.
“At some point, I’m relatively certain there will be further review of the prohibition,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told reporters in April. “That doesn’t predict any outcome.”
LSU officials declined an interview request for this story. But LSU Athletics Director Joe Alleva said as far back as 2014 that beer sales in Tiger Stadium are “going to happen at some point.” In March, spokesman Ernie Ballard told Daily Report the university is “aggressively working” toward establishing an area where fans who don’t have premium seats could buy beer by this fall.
Syracuse University has sold alcohol at sporting events since opening the Carrier Dome in 1980, says athletics department spokeswoman Sue Edson. But until recently, only a handful of other schools did the same.
Todd Turner, founder and president of consulting firm Collegiate Sports Associates, directed athletics departments at four large Division I universities in four different conferences between 1987 and 2008. None of his schools seriously considered selling alcohol at sporting events, “although I can assure you it was consumed,” he says with a laugh.
Turner says alcohol sales were considered “inconsistent with the student culture,” because most college students are under 21. But today, there are 101 facilities that host college sports at 81 schools where alcohol is available in the premium areas, while there are 74 such facilities at 53 schools that sell alcohol in the general concessions areas, as counted by the Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management Coalition.
“It’s kind of a new trend,” Turner says.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
LSU’s beer garden could be a test run for selling beer throughout the stadium, says Jeff Schemmel, founder and president of College Sports Solutions.
“Almost everyone is looking for ways to increase their revenue,” he says. “Obviously, beer and/or wine sales at their venues is a good way to do that.”
Schools also hope selling alcohol will lure fans away from their big-screen TVs and well-stocked refrigerators. However, a study of 29 midsized universities published in 2015 by the Journal of Sports Economics found no evidence that beer availability increases football attendance.
The University of Texas has sold almost $5 million worth of booze at football games since it began offering alcohol stadiumwide two seasons ago, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Last year, fans spent $2.8 million on beer, $128,321 for wine and $141,632 for liquor during six home games. (Miller Lite was the best-selling beer, while Budweiser reportedly sold a measly 89 cans.) The athletics department netted about $1.3 million on last year’s sales, as dictated by its vendor contract.
The University of Minnesota reportedly lost money when it started selling beer at football games in 2012, thanks to startup costs like hiring extra security. But the numbers improved, says Gopher Athletics spokesman Paul Rovnak, and the school raked in $1.26 million in alcohol revenue at seven home games last year.
Serving alcohol at the game discourages binge drinking, supporters say, because fans who can buy beer at the concession stand are less motivated to shotgun brews in the parking lot. When University of Louisiana at Monroe Athletics Director Brian Wickstrom was researching the subject in 2013, he spoke with officials at other schools who said the number of alcohol-related incidents at their games decreased after they started selling alcohol. He also met with local church leaders to hear their concerns. “We haven’t had any incidents with alcohol sales at our sporting events, and we’ve had a pretty good uptick in revenue,” Wickstrom says, adding alcohol makes up about 25% of concession sales.
ULM sells beer and wine at football, basketball, baseball and softball games. Fans are carded for every purchase, they can’t buy more than two alcoholic beverages per transaction and sales are cut off before the game ends.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette sold beer at baseball and basketball games for years before it began doing so at football games in 2009, says university spokesman Aaron Martin. He isn’t sure why it happened at baseball and basketball games first, but says the low number of incidents at those events made officials comfortable expanding beer sales to football games. Wine was also recently introduced, he adds.
Of the $257,232 in gross revenue the ULL athletics department received from all concessions at home football games in 2009, about half, $128,609, was from alcohol sales, Martin says. Last season, those totals rose to $282,087 and $232,199, respectively, with alcohol representing a significantly higher proportion of the take.
BENEFITS AND CONSEQUENCES
Jill Pepper is executive director of the TEAM Coalition, whose members include the NCAA, professional sports leagues, facilities managers, and the beer and liquor industry.
She understands why schools would rather their fans get alcohol in limited quantities from a trained professional than out of the trunk of someone’s car or through a beer bong.
But if schools want to have fewer problems with alcohol, she says, just selling beer isn’t enough. New safety procedures could include cracking down on underage and binge drinking at tailgates, not allowing fans who are already drunk into the stadium and forbidding re-entry to games (which LSU already does).
“It is treating your guests like adults, with the benefits and the consequences,” Pepper says. “That’s where we see the most success.”
Aaron White, senior scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is skeptical about the claim that selling alcohol at games will reduce binge drinking.
He cites a report showing the University of Colorado at Boulder dramatically reduced arrests, assaults, ejections from the stadium, and student referrals to the judicial affairs office when it stopped selling beer at football games in 1996. Colorado fans weren’t necessarily happy about the change, but they still renewed their season tickets.
While White hasn’t seen any large studies about whether alcohol sales lead to more or less drinking, his guess is that unless a school also bans tailgating, “you’re going to see more drunkenness.”
“For some reason, alcohol and sporting events go together,” he says. “I don’t really understand that association.”
As a coach, athletics director, consultant, event organizer, speaker and founder of SmallCollegeBasketball.com, John McCarthy has long been involved in small-college athletics. Unlike the Division I schools, he says small schools still tend to shy away from selling alcohol at sporting events.
“We’d like to think at the small-college level, we’ve stayed in the education business, not the entertainment business,” he says.
While underage drinking and crowd behavior are concerns, McCarthy also worries about commercialism and the promotion of alcohol through amateur sports. If you’re serving beer, why not a full bar? Why not an official beer and whiskey sponsor for the game? Why not a casino sponsor?
“It just opens up that Pandora’s box,” he says. “Where do we draw the line?”