DESTIN, Fla. – Pop the bubbly, and uncork the wine. Pour the spirits, and crack open the brews. Alcohol is coming to an SEC stadium near you—maybe.
In a vote of the university presidents and chancellors Friday, the SEC lifted an archaic ban on stadium-wide booze sales, granting autonomy on that decision to each member school. The league is emerging from the Stone Age by eliminating a policy that exists in no other major conference. No more prohibition. No more sneaking in booze. No more binging before the big game. Trash the flask that you hid in your pants. Get rid of the bourbon-filled tube you stuck beneath your shirt. And brace yourself for $8 beers and $10 wines. This is all assuming your school makes the change, of course. But, hey, at least the decision is now up to them, and at least booze is not only relegated to high-priced premium seating areas, an elitist approach the SEC has held for years.
The league schools that choose to open up sales will join more than 55 Football Bowl Subdivision programs in a trend that began more than a decade ago as a way to make extra bucks during a time when expenses are soaring and increase attendance when numbers are dwindling (the SEC hit a 16-year low last season). The pressure mounting on unwilling and apprehensive Southern presidents—even from their athletic directors, Why aren’t we doing this too?—was too much to avoid during this year’s annual SEC meetings in Destin.
But it was not a unanimous decision, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey suggested in a news conference announcing the move Friday afternoon from the Hilton Sandestin beach resort. In an indication of that, several schools have already decided they will not serve stadium-wide alcohol starting this football season. Auburn won’t sell, 247Sports.com reported, and Alabama issued a statement announcing its intentions not to sell. Mississippi State president Mark Keenum suggested to Sports Illustrated that his school would abstain in 2019, too (state law in Mississippi is a complicated issue, and we’ll get to that later). Georgia doesn’t plan to sell, either. The school released a statement earlier this week announcing a new, pricey premium seating area for alcohol-seekers—the elitist route, for sure.
However, a host of universities are expected to begin sales, even if they haven’t officially announced the change. LSU is the most obvious. The school has led the push to change the league’s alcohol policy for years, and Ole Miss seems to favor the move as well, though interim athletic director Keith Carter was non-committal during an interview Friday. There are guidelines each school must follow if it is to sell stadium wide: no vendors selling up and down stands; only beer and wine allowed, not liquor; drink limit for each transaction (many around the country use a two drinkers-per-person max); alcohol must be dispensed into cups; there must be designated stop times for sales (end of the third quarter for football, for example).
The SEC is one of few conferences around the country with these requirements. Normally schools create their own parameters. Why does the league feel as if its schools can’t make their own rules? “Because we are a conference walking away from decades of prohibiting this activity and want to proceed carefully and do so collectively,” Sankey sternly told reporters Friday. The commissioner’s full thoughts on this alcohol change he keeps close to the vest, but he grew serious during a portion of the news conference Friday. He’s never consumed alcohol while at a game, he said, and he didn’t have his first drink until much later in life. He takes a more cautious view of a move celebrated by many. “This is a serious issue,” he said. “We all want to joke and laugh and write stories about alcohol, but part of this care is we have to be attentive to reality and society around us. Some of us experienced that in life, which makes it a lot less flippant and a lot more serious.” He did not elaborate, but later revealed that his family has overcome past hurdles.
Sensitivity is important here, but so are facts. Schools serving stadium wide see significant decrease in alcohol-related incidents. Ohio State saw a 65% drop in incidents, and Oregon just last year saw a 49% dip in alcohol-related ejections. How is this possible? Fans aren’t concealing alcohol illegally as much, and they aren’t binge drinking during pregame tailgating festivities. “When you don’t allow it, it creates more issues,” says John Dugas, an associate athletic director at Louisiana in Lafayette, where they’ve served booze throughout venues since 2009. “You’re going to binge drink or sneak it in. People sneaking it in was really starting to be a real problem for our security around here.”
Revenue is only a small part of the move, administrators will tell you, but money is money. Schools like Texas and Ohio State have made more than $1.5 million in profits in some seasons. The biggest benefit might be an attendance draw, those in the industry say. “It’s the silver bullet for game-day experience,” another SEC administrator says. While revenue increase and incident decrease are easily measured, determining whether alcohol sales increase attendance is hard to quantify, but officials who have made the move say they did so for attendance. Maybe not coincidentally, the SEC lifts a ban that dates to at least the 1970s after a year in which it drew 73,994 on average to home games, the lowest mark since 2002. “Main reason we did it: Try to get more people in the stadium,” says Marty Kaufmann, an athletic administrator with Illinois, which announced this spring a new policy to sell alcohol stadium wide. “A lot of people have tickets in their pockets in the tailgating area and they don’t come in. Maybe now they say, ‘Let’s go in and get a beer.’” Sell it and they will come? Maybe, but there are more benefits. SEC administrators for the move expect it to diminish the mad rush into the stadium at kickoff as fans chug beers until the last minute, and lengthen the time fans stay for games. “As soon as the buzz wears off, they’re naturally out the door to get a beer,” one SEC administrator said, “and they can’t come back in.”
SEC leaders have discussed their alcohol policy since 2010, Sankey said, so why did it take so long to change? “We’re a pretty traditional league,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin explained Friday. “There are a lot of societal pressures in the south.” Exhibit A: Mississippi. State law in Mississippi prohibits the selling of alcohol on college campuses. In fact, Mississippi State and Ole Miss football suite holders store liquor and beer that they purchased off campus in lockers at the stadium (other SEC schools are allowed to sell such in premium areas). For Ole Miss, making the change to stadium-wide sales will be easier than in Starkville. Vaught Hemingway Stadium has acquired “resort” status, a way to skirt around the state law. Mississippi State’s Davis Wade Stadium does not have resort status, and its president expressed doubt in the Bulldogs acquiring such any time soon. “If others want to do it,” Keenum told SI, “that’s up to them.”
Will presidents get pushback for depriving fans of an amenity that neighboring conference schools supply? Probably. Let’s face it; the Mississippi schools are already at a disadvantage in the nation’s most powerful league, as two SEC programs splitting resources in such a lightly populated state. They don’t have the revenue or support of their SEC brothers, but they’ll now be behind in something else? Jason DePaepe, a senior associate athletic director at Colorado, says CU began selling alcohol in its stadium last year, in part, to “catch up,” he said, with neighboring Colorado State, a school that’s sold alcohol at its games since the 1970s. Stubborn SEC schools likely need to ease into a change. Some are ahead of others. LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn all have recently created premium areas to sell alcohol. This is not an exclusive thing to the south. Colorado had a beer garden in 2014 before it opened sale stadium wide a year ago. Illinois had a beer tent for baseball as a trial last year, and Purdue had a beer garden in its football end zone that expanded to the entire stadium in 2017.
So now what? The next questions before the SEC are clear: (1) Will they begin allowing alcohol-related in-stadium advertisement and sponsorships and (2) will they serve booze at conference championship events? “I expect the latter to be the subject of conversation moving forward,” Sankey said. And what about the former? How much would Budweiser pay to be the official beer of the SEC? “We’re not there,” Sankey answered. Maybe we’re asking too much for a league whose footprint spans much of the Bible Belt, whose presidents were, for years, “scared to death,” says one AD, to sell alcohol to adults. It seems like this was made so much more difficult than it should be, but change is hard. So let’s celebrate instead of quibbling. In fact, let’s toast.