- As schools around the country warm to stadiumwide alcohol sales, the SEC is having its most serious discussion of the issue yet.
Chris Maitre is a Tulane football lifer. He attended Green Wave football games with his father in the 1970s at the Superdome. Chris was just 5 then, but he can vividly remember his dad clasping an adult beverage in his right hand as the Wave played on the field below. “Alcohol, specifically beer, has been at Tulane events for as long as anybody can recall,” says Maitre, now a senior associate athletic director at Tulane who has worked at the school for 23 years. “I don’t know when we didn’t have it.”
The stadiumwide sale of alcohol at Tulane football games can be traced back to 1967, a year after the Green Wave left the Southeastern Conference to become independent. More than five decades later, whether or not Tulane’s former leaguemates will finally join it in the booze business will be the hot topic at next week’s SEC meetings in Destin, Fla. On the agenda for league decision-makers is a decades-old bylaw prohibiting member schools from selling alcohol in general seating areas at athletic venues. Many of the conference’s high-ranking administrators are optimistic that league presidents will not only seriously discuss the alcohol ban but will overturn an archaic policy that exists in no other major conference. The bylaw will be “front and center” during the four-day event at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Resort, says one athletic director; another AD says it’s “the main thing.” The administrators spoke to Sports Illustrated on a condition of anonymity.
The pressure on SEC leaders to soften the policy is greater than ever. At least 55 Football Bowl Subdivision programs serve alcohol throughout the stadium. Last fall, Arizona, Oregon, Boston College, Oklahoma State and Colorado expanded sales from premium areas and into general seating. This fall, Illinois, Rutgers, Oklahoma and Texas Tech will join the mix. Many of them cite an additional revenue stream, fewer reported binge drinking incidents and an enhanced game-day experience that boosts attendance as reasons for the change. The SEC is not immune to the national attendance decline that hit a 22-year low this past season: The league’s per-game attendance average of 73,994 was the lowest since 2002 and nearly 5,000 below 2015’s average.
Even the NCAA lifted its long-standing ban on alcohol sales at championship events last spring, citing a successful two-year pilot program that diminished alcohol-related incidents. The SEC’s prohibition stance is becoming the exception and not the rule around the country, creating an unfamiliar situation for a conference normally out in front of issues of revenue generation. “Why wouldn’t we do it?” asks Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte, who oversees a program that sold $5 million worth of alcohol in its first two years of stadiumwide selling in 2015 and ’16. “We’re asking our fans to come spend the day with us, and if they want to buy a beer, they can buy a beer. If you’re going to pretty much any event nowadays—Disneyland, even—you can buy a beer.”
Beer is available in SEC stadiums, but only in areas denoted as premium seating. The SEC bylaw restricts alcohol sales to private, controlled areas. Many SEC administrators feel the decision to sell alcohol throughout the stadium should be left up to the individual schools, but the policy can only change through a majority vote of the 14 league presidents and chancellors. There has never been an official vote, nor has there even been a proposal or motion by a league school for such a vote, according to those involved in the discussions over the years.
Sports Illustrated reached out to the spokesmen of each of the 14 league presidents and chancellors this month seeking comment on their stance. Thirteen school leaders either declined comment, referred SI to the league office or did not respond. Christian Basi, a spokesman for Missouri chancellor Alexander Cartwright, says the university “looks forward to a robust discussion on the issue later this year at the annual SEC meetings.”
In the past, LSU has been the school leading the public push for change. The Tigers’ neighboring FBS schools have some of the most liberal stances on alcohol sales—unsurprising given south Louisiana’s freewheeling, festive culture. Tulane in New Orleans and Louisiana in Lafayette, both an hour’s drive from LSU’s campus, not only sell beer and wine but serve daiquiris, frozen cocktails made with tequila or rum. Tulane is believed to be one of the first schools to serve alcohol in general seating areas. Bill Goldring and Danny Brasseux, two longtime Green Wave supporters, remember beer sales in Tulane Stadium for TU games the year the New Orleans Saints began sharing the venue in 1967. Goldring, a longtime member of Tulane’s legislative board, is a billionaire businessman from New Orleans whose family has been in the alcohol industry since 1898 and owns Sazerac, the second largest spirits company in the United States. “What’s really a joke, you go up to LSU and you sit in certain areas, and you get all the alcohol you want,” Goldring says. “If you’re tailgating before the game, everybody is drunk and you can smell it from 10 miles away. If it’s a feel-good policy, it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
The policy spans generations, but its origin story is lost to history: The SEC office does not have record of the bylaw’s creation. Roy Kramer, SEC commissioner from 1990 to 2002, believes it existed as far back as 1978, his first year as Vanderbilt’s athletic director. He remembers the policy being a point of contention even then.
Overturning the policy is a complicated, delicate issue in a conference whose footprint covers an area dubbed the Bible Belt, but a compromise is possible. University presidents could vote to allow schools to sell booze stadiumwide, but only under specific guidelines. The league can look to fellow FBS members for some ideas. Most schools have a standard cut-off point for sales, often the start of the fourth quarter in football or the 12-minute mark in the second half of a men’s basketball game. They also restrict the kind of alcohol to beer and/or wine, keeping liquor to premium areas only, and they limit each transaction to no more than two beverages.
However, opinions differ on sales near the student section, where more than half of the occupants could be underage. At Oregon, alcohol consumption is banned in the student section. At Colorado, there is no point of sale near the section. Illinois is handling things differently. Originally, officials didn’t plan to sell booze near the student section, but the school’s campus police chief, Craig Stone, advocated for one point of sale there. “He said, ‘You’ll have more problems if you don’t,’” says Marty Kaufmann, an athletic administrator with the Illini. “You’ll have students going to other parts of the stadium.”
Stone would know. He was the police chief at Ohio State in 2016 during the Buckeyes’ implementation of alcohol sales, one of the most successful examples of the policy changes the SEC is considering. OSU reported a 65% drop in alcohol-related incidents after selling stadiumwide and an added profit of $1.16 million in ’16 and $1.23 million in ’17. In making its decision to expand alcohol sales, Illinois officials visited and communicated with their Big Ten counterparts, including the Buckeyes. “There were no red flags,” Kaufmann says. “We thought there would be problems. It was the opposite.” At Louisiana, beer sales make up 50% of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ concession revenue for baseball, according to John Dugas, an associate athletic director at the school. The last major game-day incident the program had was in the 1990s, well before UL began serving alcohol in ’09. “Incidents went way down,” Dugas says. “People know, ‘I can get a beer inside. I don’t need to drink a 12-pack in the hour before I go in there,’” he says.
Some schools are using revenue from alcohol sales on preventative measures to head off some of those concerns. Indiana is putting 10% of its net sales toward alcohol safety programming on campus, and Illinois plans to reserve a portion of its revenue for extra security measures, like the addition of seven police officers. Some administrators say extra security isn’t necessary. “I think people will find out they were really apprehensive and they shouldn’t be,” says Maitre, who works for a Tulane athletic department where alcohol sales at football concessions only trail bottled water and hot dogs. While revenue increases and incident decreases are easily measured, determining whether alcohol sales boost attendance is hard to quantify. The scheduled opponents, the weather and the success of the home team all impact the number of butts in seats, but administrators seem to believe expanding alcohol sales works. On a recent survey Illinois sent to fans to assess the importance of game-day amenities, beer “was a dramatic No. 1, even over WiFi,” Kaufmann says. At least two schools, Purdue and Boston College, increased their points of sale from Year 1 to Year 2 because of lengthy lines. Purdue went from 48 to 115 selling points between 2017 and ’18 and saw its alcohol sales rise from $567,000 to $1.06 million.
Some of those previously against in-stadium beer sales are starting to come around. At a function this spring, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez spoke positively about the potential of selling beer at Camp Randall Stadium, eight years after he described the move as a non-starter. Colorado stopped selling alcohol stadiumwide in 1996 before reintroducing the practice last fall. Officials eased into it by slowly expanding on a beer garden that had been opened in 2014. “Feedback became very clear,” says Jason DePaepe, a senior associate athletic director at CU. “They wanted to take drinks back to their seats.” Several schools have used beer gardens as trial methods or precursors to expanding alcohol to general seating areas. The SEC is no different. League schools have been skirting the SEC bylaw by adding new premium seating areas. At least Texas A&M, Auburn and LSU opened beer gardens at their baseball stadiums, selling booze in sequestered areas that are removed from bleacher seating. LSU and Texas A&M both have created new premium areas in their football stadiums, and Florida created a beer garden just outside of its football stadium for last year’s spring game.
The discussion in Destin may go beyond merely sales. The abolishment of the old policy could open the door to alcohol sponsorships, another moneymaker that the college football world has embraced. In recent years, Louisville has agreed to a $2.5 million deal with Maker’s Mark, and Texas entered a marketing agreement with Corona for a reported $5 million. “I think they oughta lift the ban,” says Elliot Maisel, a prominent Alabama booster and CEO of the Mobile-based Gulf Distributing, a 75-year-old company dispersing beer and wine throughout the SEC footprint. “Being the only conference in America that bans alcohol says something. It’s time to do it.”
Confidence is high enough that at least two SEC schools have a plan in place to begin selling alcohol throughout their stadiums this coming season. Others aren’t in such a hurry, with one athletic director telling SI, “We’ll probably wait a year.” Optimism from administrators should be taken with a grain of salt. Just last year, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey expressed doubt in there being a majority of presidents in favor of overturning the legislation, and the topic wasn’t discussed seriously at the SEC meetings. Many officials expected the topic to come up in March when university leaders met at the site of the SEC men’s basketball tournament in Nashville.
Instead, it was pushed to Destin—a fitting scene. The spring meetings are a gathering of some of the most powerful people in college football, all congregating at a ritzy beach resort, holding nightly catered soirées in plush ballrooms where available, in no small amount, are beer, wine and cocktails.