Shortly after he became athletics director at West Virginia University, in 2010, Oliver Luck sat down with the three most important law enforcement officials in his new community: the university police chief, the city of Morgantown’s police chief and the colonel of the state police department.
They all shared one concern: Alcohol-soaked football game days at WVU, where a lively tailgating scene and the school’s halftime pass-out policy had combined to create an environment for heavy binge drinking — and all the headaches that followed.
“We thought that was the problem, when people were throwing up at the game in the second quarter,” Luck said. “That wasn’t pleasant.”
Luck had a two-part plan that he figured could make a difference. He was able to shut down the school’s pass-out policy, meaning football fans could no longer leave the stadium at halftime to guzzle more alcohol then return to their seats. Also, with the support of the police chiefs, he lobbied the school’s board of governors to approve beer sales inside the stadium.
At the time, only a few schools around the country sold alcohol during games. But West Virginia, on the cusp of leaving the Big East for the Big 12, would be the first program in a major conference to fully embrace such a move.
“People would say, ‘Mr. Luck, you think the best way to control drinking is to offer beer during a three-hour football game?’ The answer was yes. Yes, we do,” said Luck, who left WVU for an NCAA position in 2014 and now serves as commissioner of the XFL. “It’s contrarian, but people binge drink before they go into the stadium and that’s not healthy. If they knew they could buy a 16-ounce Bud Light in the stadium, we aren’t going to eliminate binge drinking but we can certainly cut back on it.”
The results in Morgantown were all positive: Starting with the 2011 season, when the school adopted the new policies, alcohol-related incidents in and around the stadium declined while the athletics department also created a revenue stream off beer sales. The revenue only amounted to a fraction of WVU’s budget — around $600,000 a year after splitting commissions with its concessionaire — but the experiment was a success. Soon, West Virginia became college football’s pioneer program when it came to public alcohol sales.
“The driving force wasn’t revenue,” Luck said. “I suppose one could say there was fear we could lose revenue if our tailgate behavior kept getting worse and worse and that carried over to the stadium. That was a motivating factor for me. But the revenue was nice. There’s no question about that.”
Eight years later, the wheels are in motion at Missouri to become the latest in a long line of schools following West Virginia’s lead. At last month’s Southeastern Conference spring meetings, the league dropped its decades-old prohibition of public alcohol sales at sporting events and approved a measure allowing its members to decide if they’ll sell beer or wine at events this fall.
Some SEC schools already have decided they won’t sell alcohol at their venues. But with home attendance and game-day revenues in decline for the past four years, Mizzou would love to start sales for the 2019 season — if athletics director Jim Sterk and university leaders can turn talk into action. Sterk already has had preliminary discussions with local law enforcement officials — they’re on board with the change, university sources have said — and chancellor Alexander Cartwright.
On Monday, Sterk will formally propose starting alcohol sales when he meets with the school’s Intercollegiate Athletics Committee, a collection of MU faculty, staff, alumni and students. The topic also could come up for discussion at next week’s UM System Board of Curators meeting in Columbia. Should MU approve to start sales this fall, Levy Restaurants — the school’s concessions company —would be responsible for hiring and training workers to comply with SEC regulations for game-day sales. For now, MU would like to start sales at football and men’s and women’s basketball games and probably baseball and softball contests.
Elsewhere around the country, the kegs have been flowing. Before the SEC dropped its ban on alcohol sales, more than 50 FBS schools were selling alcohol in general seating areas at football games. Last year, the NCAA approved alcohol sales at NCAA championship events.
Ohio State, which started selling alcohol at games in 2016, is among the schools Mizzou has studied to learn more about the practice. According to an exhaustive study by the OSU student newspaper, The Lantern, local law enforcement responded to 61 alcohol-related incidents at Buckeyes games in 2016, down from 175 in 2015 and 269 in 2014.
West Virginia has since started selling alcohol at basketball and baseball games and seen a similar downturn in game-day problems.
“We’ve sold a lot of beer at basketball games and have yet to have one incident,” Mountaineers AD Shane Lyons said. “Same thing with baseball. It gives the fan who’s not tailgating the opportunity to have a beer like they do at home and still be involved in the game. It’s been very positive on our end.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
For now, it’s uncertain what kind of financial impact alcohol sales would have on Mizzou’s bottom line — MU athletics has operated at a budget deficit the last two years — but Sterk projects a conservative estimate of $500,000 in added annual revenue.
For schools taking the alcohol plunge, sales revenue is just part of the appeal. Football attendance is trending down across the country — average crowd size at SEC games last fall were the league’s lowest since 2002 — and schools are seeking every way to enhance the game-day experience. Since the Tigers last won the SEC East Division, in 2014, average announced home attendance has fallen 21.2 percent through 2018. From 2014-17, ticket-sales revenue plunged 35.4 percent. Game-day revenue from concessions, parking and programs fell nearly 10 percent.
It’s up to the schools, Lyons said, to give fans fewer excuses to stay at home. Alcohol sales is becoming the trendy solution.
“We’re all looking across the board as the TV sets get larger (and more) people are staying at home,” he said. “How do you give individuals the opportunity to come to the game and enjoy the experiences?”
Missouri hopes to have an answer by its first home game of the season, on Sept. 7.
The opponent? West Virginia.