Second – Sobering – Thoughts About Alcohol Sales At College Stadiums
Michael T. Nietzel
December 1, 2018
The college football bowls are upon us, raising the big question of the season – will they sell beer at the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl? “Yes” is a good bet. In fact, this year saw a rapidly increasing number of universities allowing fans to buy alcohol at on-campus sporting venues.
Ten years ago fewer than a dozen big-time football universities permitted beer sales in their stadiums. Today more than 50 – about a third of all Division I FBS schools – sell beer at their football venues, and a growing list of smaller schools are also bellying up to stadium bars. Several universities are going a step further, allowing brewers to place university brands and logos on their products. At the University of Texas, Longhorn fans have a new slogan – “Horns Up, Limes In” – the result of UT’s partnership with Corona.
In-venue alcohol sales are now permitted at most postseason bowl games, and the NCAA – never known to let a cash cow go un-milked – no longer bans alcohol sales at its championship events.
Of course, there is no secret as to why an increasing number of schools have jumped on the beer-sales wagon. At most universities, attendance and revenue at athletic events are down as more and more fans stay home and turn on HDTV instead of trekking to the stadium. As one marketing executive explained, “The parking is free in my driveway. The bathroom is eight steps away. I have all the cold beer I can drink in my fridge and, if this game is bad, there are another 25 games I can see.” Beer companies are eager partners; beer sales are down relative to wine and spirits so brewers also are looking for any new opportunity to pour more.
While the motive for universities to allow alcohol sales at athletic events is clearly to bring in more revenue, the consequences of that policy are troubling for at least three reasons.
First, at most schools, the decision to allow beer sales has been driven by attempts to pay for athletic programs that run larger and larger financial deficits. Trying to prop up programs that they cannot afford, administrators desperately look for new revenue sources, even when they involve lines of business – like peddling alcohol – about which these same administrators privately agonize. The solution for overextended athletics budgets is not to be found at stadium beer lines; it requires cutting the costs of bloated athletic departments.
Second, it is not at all clear that the business model is working. Trying to lure more customers to attend games by letting them buy $8 beers when they can stay home with a $7 six-pack is a dubious strategy. For every Ohio State that netted over $1.2 million in beer sales, many other schools turn only meager profits after having to split the revenue with its licensed vendors and pay for the additional security that they must hire to enforce the policy.
Finally and of greatest importance is that the surge in athletic venue beer sales comes at exactly the same time university leaders are trying all sorts of measures – in residence halls, fraternities, sororities, student orientations, counseling centers and the curriculum itself – to counter problems of alcohol abuse, underage drinking, and binge drinking by college students. They are responding to alarming statistics:
more than a third of college students report they engaged in binge drinking in the prior month;
about 20% of college students meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder;
a quarter of college students report adverse academic consequences as a result of drinking;
alcohol is a factor in almost 700,000 sexual assaults involving students each year;
more than 1800 college students die annually from alcohol-related injuries.
For decades college leaders have recognized that alcohol abuse by students is one of their greatest campus threats and yet little progress has been made in reducing the problem. There are numerous reasons for this ineffectiveness, including student cultures, alumni attitudes, law-enforcement policies, and campus leadership.
No one would suggest that selling beer throughout college stadiums on Saturday afternoons is the main culprit behind campus drinking problems. But college leaders who adopt such a policy need to recognize that they are sending an unhelpful, mixed message to students. And then, they need to answer a simple question: is it worth it?