For all the attention paid to SEC gridirons in the fall, there’s an equally important college football battle happening behind the scenes year-round.
It’s the conference arms race for money and what it can provide; TV network deals, corporate partnerships and donations, which result in fancy indoor practice facilities, renovated stadiums and football staffs that can pay Steve Sarkisian to be an analyst.
But there’s one cash pipe the SEC voluntarily has shut off: selling alcohol at its heavily attended football and basketball games — among those in general seating, at least.
Five SEC schools already sell alcohol to premium seat-holders, with Florida announcing its plans to offer beer and wine as recently as last offseason. Suites long have operated under a different set of rules because they are considered private, leased areas by the conference.
So, why can’t Joe Football Fan crack open a cold one on a hot Saturday afternoon?
General-seating sections are considered public, and it’s in those areas that alcohol sales are prohibited, as are any advertisements promoting beverage producers.
As of May, when SEC leadership last converged for the conference’s annual spring meetings, athletic directors were still in the “talking” stage of this issue. As far as we know, no proposal has been made to alter or rewrite the rule … yet.
Some, like LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, want to see the SEC lift its alcohol ban. But others, including Auburn’s Jay Jacobs, see no need for more money when the schools already make plenty off the SEC Network deal.
I never imagined typing these words, but the conference is passing on a really easy cash grab.
Let’s look at Texas, Minnesota and West Virginia — all schools that sell beer at their football games. In just their first two home games of the season, the Longhorns made $1.1 million, according to bizjournals.com. That would come out to $3.3 million during the Longhorns’ full season of six home games.
For comparison, Minnesota generated $830,000 in sales over four home games, while WVU collected $582,000 in three games. It also should be noted that Minnesota and West Virginia have stadium capacities of only 50,805 and 60,000, respectively. Eight SEC stadiums can seat 80,000-plus fans.
Adding millions in potential sales over six or seven home games, which could help schools keep up with the rising price of full cost-of-attendance scholarships, seems like a no-brainer.
It also would open the door to more lucrative corporate sponsorships, such as Louisville’s massive partnership with Maker’s Mark bourbon, and potentially grease the wheels on schools selling alcohol at their venues during non-athletic events (i.e. concerts). That’s the route Penn State is trying to take, pushing for alcohol sales at non-athletic events without allowing general-public consumption at its own sports games.
And all this money talk aside, here’s a novel idea: How about making game day a little more enjoyable for the fans?
In allowing the sale of beer at the College World Series last summer, a sort of pilot program that likely precedes the expansion of alcohol sales at college sporting events, the NCAA offered an argument that allowing alcohol sales inside the stadium could help prevent pregame binge-drinking.
“We feel if the people have an opportunity to have a cold drink of their choice inside the stadium, and we can monitor it and limit it and make sure that people are of age, that could be very positive,” managing director of championships and alliances Ron Prettyman told The Associated Press in June.
While I think that theory is bogus — people will overconsume beer whether it’s $3.50/can at the convenience store or $8/can from a stadium vendor — it’s silly to punish fans capable of enjoying a few beers without yakking everywhere just because underage college kids like getting drunk (news flash!). There are easy, proven ways to mitigate alcohol abuse used by other stadiums around the country, as well (vendors checking IDs, limiting number of drinks per trip to the concessions stand, etc.).
Ultimately, it should be about the SEC rewarding its loyal fans with a better football-viewing experience. And if the schools make more money in the process, well, shouldn’t that be even more incentive for the SEC to reverse its stance on alcohol sales?
The landscape is changing. The SEC shouldn’t risk falling behind other conferences for the sake of keeping the status quo.