John Clay

The time is right for SEC to start allowing alcohol sales at games

This could finally be the year the SEC starts drinking.

Not literally, mind you, but at the Southeastern Conference spring meetings this week in Destin, Fla., the agenda is to include serious discussion about lifting the conference’s long-standing ban on alcohol sales at athletics events.

It’s about time, especially given the SEC’s current hypocritical position of allowing member schools to serve alcohol in private luxury suites but banning the sale in general seating areas. That just adds to the perception that college programs are all about well-heeled donors instead of average fans.

The current policy also puts arguably the nation’s strongest conference in the minority. In fact, no other major conference has a blanket ban on alcohol sales, instead leaving the decision up to members. And according to Sports Illustrated, at least 55 FBS programs serve alcohol in general seating areas. Even the NCAA has joined the party. Last spring, the powers that be in Indianapolis began allowing alcohol sales at its championship events.

The SEC has stubbornly resisted. The issue received little traction at last year’s spring meetings. And a planned discussion among league representatives during the SEC men’s basketball tournament in Nashville in March was tabled until this week’s meetings in Florida. Now, however, the timing might finally be right.

As usual, this has more to do with college football than any other sport. Football is the big moneymaker at most athletics programs. But college football attendance is falling. Falling fast, in some cases. For many, high-definition television and matchup choices have made the at-home game experience preferable to the escalating ticket prices, high concession costs, tight parking and annoying traffic problems at the stadium.

The thinking then is that allowing patrons to purchase a beer (or two) at the game might get some of those fans off the couches and back in the seats. Consider that last year Pac-12 member Arizona allowed beer and wine sales for the first time and attendance increased by an average of 2,804 per game for a team that went 5-7 in its first season under new coach Kevin Sumlin.

Then there’s the sales revenue. Not that major college programs are hurting for money — Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney just agreed to a $92 million contract — some have reported sales of more than $1 million from alcohol sales. That doesn’t include the money from potential sponsorships.

The SEC should not vote for change without restrictions, however. At most schools, alcohol sales are limited to beer and wine. No hard alcohol. Some do not sell beer at concessions near student sections. Others have designated alcohol-free sections. Sales are stopped at the start of the fourth quarter in football games and at the 12-minute mark of the second half in basketball. Transactions are often limited to two per person.

The proceeds need not all go to the athletics program, either. Ohio State donates $50,000 per year to the university’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery.

There will be problems, of course. Arizona reported that 43 people were removed from the stadium during its seven home games. But there is also the argument that less binge drinking exists during tailgating before games when fans know they are allowed to purchase alcohol inside the stadium.

Just last month, Indiana announced that this fall it will become the seventh Big 10 school to serve beer and wine at home football games. Down the road, Louisville has long allowed beer sales in basketball (from Freedom Hall to the Yum Center) and football (from old Cardinal Stadium at the Fairgrounds to the current Cardinal Stadium off Central Avenue).

If it’s good enough for the people in the suites, it should be good enough for the regular fan. The question is no longer why, SEC. The question is: Why not?

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader