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UB to expand alcohol sales at football games, but will Big 4 schools follow suit?

Expect more on tap at University at Buffalo football games this fall.

The school plans to expand its beer sales at football games at UB Stadium, Athletic Director Mark Alnutt confirmed to The News, continuing a pilot program that began last November with alcohol sales at men’s and women’s basketball games.

Beer has been sold in the champions club and in reserved alumni areas at UB Stadium, and UB originally planned to utilize designated kiosks on the west side of the stadium to sell beer, on the opposite side of the student section. But the school revised its plans and will have one stand-alone kiosk on each of the east and west concourses that will offer Budweiser and premium and craft beer options.

UB’s expansion of beer sales is part of a growing trend in college athletics. At least 64 of the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs – the top tier in college football – sold alcohol during the 2018 season, whether through full-stadium sales or limited sales in premium seating sections. UB is one of at least six FBS schools that will add beer sales at its home football games this season and one of eight Mid-American Conference schools that will sell beer.

UB originally began researching beer sales at athletic events during Allen Greene’s tenure as athletic director from November 2015 to January 2018, but never implemented it. The school resumed researching the process for alcohol sales at athletic events when Alnutt became athletic director in March 2018, and instituted its first beer sales to the public eight months later at Alumni Arena, after the state approved a liquor license the day before Thanksgiving.

"The overall feedback from our standpoint, from our fan base was positive," Alnutt said. "We have people who don’t quite agree with it, but every decision we make there’s always going to be people that don’t agree with it, but overall it was positive and it was done the right way.

“The main thing, did it preserve that family environment? It did. We’re not trying to mimic the Bills. We’re excited to continue this and add more to it, to be able to be in a situation to ask, what’s another amenity we can add, to be creative enough to bring people in and be in competition with people who want to stay in and watch games on TV?”

Alcohol as a revenue stream

Athletic departments are turning to alcohol sales to add another revenue stream and to enhance the fan experience at college football games, whose average attendance numbers declined in a five-season span. According to NCAA records, the 123 FBS programs averaged 45,671 spectators in 835 games in 2013; that number dropped to 42,203 spectators at 868 games for 129 FBS programs in 2017.

UB’s attendance mirrored that trend in those five seasons; the Bulls announced an average of 22,736 spectators at home games in 2013, and that number fell to 13,350 per game in 2017.

Russell Wright, the managing director of Collegiate Consulting, told The News in an email that many schools have a sole purpose for selling alcohol at sporting events.

“As we have witnessed, it is purely financial and trying to create another revenue stream for the athletic department,” said Wright, whose Atlanta-based consulting firm assists college athletic departments and conferences. “Schools are willing to take on any potential risks, because the need to find additional revenue is that critical since budgets and salaries within athletics continue to increase at a fairly aggressive rate.”

However, Alnutt regards alcohol sales as a means to accentuate the entertainment aspect of attending a college sporting event and attract casual fans, rather than solely as a revenue generator.

“Was there some extra revenue from basketball? Sure.” Alnutt said. "But as we talk about competition, we talk universal, when we talk about collegiate athletics and the decline in attendance, which we all are aware of. … We’re competing against that 70-inch, flat-screen TV with a recliner, with a cup holder, and there’s some people that want to partake.

“We have the ability to provide that and we were able to operate that with minimal to no issues at basketball. That’s a success. We’re going to continue with football to be able to do that, to be able to provide that amenity and closely monitor that. Knock on wood, hopefully there’s no issues with that.”

Alcohol sales in the Big 4

There’s interest among the athletic directors at Canisius, St. Bonaventure and Niagara to expand beer sales; Canisius and St. Bonaventure limit beer sales at basketball games to season ticket holder and VIP areas, while Niagara sells beer in the premium club at hockey games at Dwyer Arena and in the Gallagher Center's lower-level hospitality room for Purple and White Club members before men's basketball games.

Officials at Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure says they don't intend to expand or add alcohol sales at sporting events this year.

“We would like to do it more,” Bona Athletic Director Tim Kenney said. “We do it in our donor areas, but New York State does not make it easy. That’s the roadblock we ran into, because each of our facilities is unique, and they make it so restrictive as to where you can sell. We’re sitting there thinking, ‘Hey let’s apply for the permit, we have a good plan in place.’ Next thing you know, we can’t have this here.

"It has to be controlled, or you have to fence people in, and we’re not going to fence people in (to prevent alcohol from being taken outside). That’s been the challenge with us. ... We're working on it."

Canisius Athletic Director Bill Maher said that while the athletic department has no immediate plans to sell alcohol to the public, it’s not averse to exploring the idea of future alcohol sales at athletic events. Canisius currently limits beer sales to a pregame donor area at basketball games at the Koessler Athletic Center.

“It works fine,” Maher said. “Students are permitted there, as well. If a student wanted to buy a beer, they can buy a beer, and it’s not something we would be against.

“If it’s managed and handled properly, it’s an amenity that people want when they go to a game. If it’s abused, then it becomes a problem for everybody. But if it’s not abused, then it’s an amenity that people appreciate, and we are supportive of that and would be supportive of that. We are not looking to sell alcohol in the general arena next year, but it doesn’t mean we are not open and wouldn’t consider it down the road.”

Beer is sold at Canisius hockey games at Harborcenter, which is operated by Pegula Sports and Entertainment.

Through an athletic department spokesman, Niagara said it "will continue to monitor the landscape when it comes to sales to the general public."

What alcohol is worth to an athletic department

UB did not have numbers for how much it made from alcohol sales at its men’s and women’s basketball games in 2018-19, but a UB athletic department spokesman told The News that the athletic department receives 10 percent net of all alcohol sales. The money goes to the athletic department budget.

Revenue totals vary at schools that sell alcohol at sporting events, including football, basketball and hockey.

The Lafayette (Ind.) Journal & Courier reported in January that Purdue's athletic department generated $1,063,632 in gross sales of alcohol at home football games in 2018. It was nearly double its gross sales of $567,778.76 in 2017, the first season Purdue hosted general alcohol sales at Ross-Ade Stadium.

The Austin American-Statesman reported in December 2016 that the University of Texas made $2.8 million in beer sales, $128,321 in wine sales and $141,632 in liquor sales during six home games in 2016, and the UT athletic department netted about $1.3 million as part of its contract with 1883 Provision Company. It’s a drop in the bucket for an athletic department whose operating revenue has risen to more than $200 million in each of the last two (2017 and 2018) fiscal years.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that the University of Minnesota had more than $900,000 in sales of beer and wine in 2012, the first year of alcohol sales at TCF Bank Stadium. However, Minnesota ended up in the red that year, taking a loss of more than $15,000 due to vendor fees, security costs and startup fees.

Athletic departments also designate revenue from alcohol sales for certain programs. Ohio State had a net revenue of more than $2.3 million in its first and second seasons of alcohol sales at Ohio Stadium. That revenue helps fund on-campus safety initiatives, including increased security at football games and funding for the school’s center for alcohol and substance abuse, Ohio State said.

Arkansas, which begins alcohol sales at football games this fall, will dedicate a portion of the revenue to the school's student affairs division, for alcohol-related education and programming.

UB’s guidelines for beer sales are that fans can purchase two beers at a time (a beer costs either $8 or $9), and at football games, students are allowed to purchase beer and drink it in the student section, provided they are of age. UB will work with Try-It Distributing, based in Lancaster, to provide the Budweiser, and Williamsville-based 12 Gates Brewery will partner with UB for the premium and craft beers.

Alnutt also said that in the three months that UB offered beer sales at its basketball games at Alumni Arena, there were no alcohol-related incidents involving spectators. The numbers aren't the same at other schools in recent years, though.

The Wisconsin State Journal in May cited a report by Wasserman, a consulting firm employed by Indiana (which will sell beer and wine at football games this fall), which found that alcohol-related incidents fell by 65% at Ohio State and 35% at West Virginia in the first year of sales.

But a study by the Journal of American College Health in 2018 analyzed campus police reports on game weekends for an unnamed university that began alcohol sales in 2012. Researchers found that 330 total crime incidents occurred in three seasons alcohol was not sold (2009-2011) compared to 475 annually when alcohol was sold (2012-2013).

"Liquor-law violations and alcohol consumption by a minor were the two most frequently cited offenses," according to a summary of the report.

Kenney noted that the price of beer might discourage potential abuse by students.

“The price point with the students, they’re not going to pay for a $7 beer,” he said. “They’re going to do their pregaming wherever, and we can’t be naïve on that."

As for the decision to expand sales for football games, Alnutt said he sought feedback from season ticket holders, staff members and on-campus administrators about the possibility of beer sales, while balancing the value of a college sporting event with fan engagement.

“When it really came down to a decision, to do it, it had to be done right, in terms of how we serve, when we serve, the security aspect of it, checking IDs, trying to prevent underage drinking, and the responsible drinking aspect of that,” Alnutt said. “But the one thing through all this, it’s an amenity. When we talk about something, like a fan amenity, I don’t look at it from a revenue standpoint.”

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