Should SEC football stadiums sell alcohol?

Arkansas announced plans to start selling beer and wine to premium ticketholders at football games starting this fall. Is this the start of a trend towards loosening general alcohol restrictions in the SEC? Probably not. A combination of regional, political and economic factors will likely keep the majority of SEC stadiums “dry” for the forseeable future.

SEC Policy

According to Chuck Dunlap, the SEC’s director of communications, conference policy prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages to most fans during SEC home games:

No alcoholic beverages shall be sold or dispensed for public consumption anywhere in the facility and the possession and/or consumption of alcoholic beverages in the public areas of the facility shall be prohibited. These prohibitions shall not apply to private, leased areas in the facility or other areas designated by the SEC. There shall be no advertising displays mentioning or promoting alcoholic beverages in the facility.

Arkansas plans to sell alcohol to Reynolds Razorback Stadium’s 8,950 club seats, which represents only about 12% of the facility’s normal football capacity. Other SEC schools, like Auburn and Alabama, do not sell alcohol directly to premium seatholders but do allow them to bring in such beverages from the outside. Beer is also generally sold in bowl games where SEC schools participate.

It’s not clear what would happen if any SEC member unilaterally defied the conference “policy” and started selling beer or wine to all ticketholders (of legal drinking age, of course). The policy referenced by Dunlap does not appear in the formal SEC Constitution or Bylaws, and there’s no mention of any enforcement mechanism. In 2009, LSU athletic department official Herb Vincent referred to the policy as more of an “unsaid decision that’s been made among the league schools that we’re not going to sell alcohol.” He added that LSU, which permits premium seatholders to bring their own booze, might reconsider its policy if other SEC members followed suit.

For his part, LSU Head Coach Les Miles said in 2011 he would support selling beer to the fans at Tiger Stadium, although he added, “I fear that the upper decks might not hold it.”

Southern Tradition

The SEC’s reluctance to embrace alcohol is understandable given both the federally-imposed legal drinking age of 21—which excludes the majority of undergraduates who attend football games—as well as the prohibitionist mentality still present in many southern states. At least six SEC states still have “dry” counties where the sale or possession of any alcoholic beverage remains illegal. For example, a majority of counties in Arkansas completely or partially ban liquor. In Mississippi and Tennessee, counties must expressly permit the sale of alcohol. On the flip side, Missouri and Louisiana are among the most permissive states when it comes to liquor. In fact, both Tulane University—which plays at the NFL’s Louisiana Superdome—and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette have sold beer at football games.

And while it might seem like a financial no-brainer to sell alcohol at football games, consider beer taxes tend to be much higher in the south than in other parts of the country. A recent study by the Tax Foundation found that Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina were among the six highest beer-tax states in the nation. Even if beer were sold at stadiums in those states, fans might well decide to just keep tailgating before the game and foregoing the additional tax-and-markup that would inevitably apply to in-stadium sales.

Who Really Benefits?

Indeed, some non-SEC schools have found beer and wine don’t exactly lead to a pot of gold. Last year the University of Minnesota—admittedly not a top-tier football school—reported a $16,000 loss on the sale of alcohol at football games despite generating almost $900,000 in gross revenues. One reason for this loss was that most of the revenue didn’t go to the university or the athletic department, but to Aramark, the outside contractor that holds the beer-and-wine contract. Aramark is a global food services company that generates more than $13.5 billion in annual revenues, a good chunk of which comes from running concessions at colleges and stadiums.

Similarly, Arkansas has a contract with Sodexo, a French-based food services conglomerate with about $16 billion in annual revenues. Sodexo runs all of Arkansas’ athletics concessions, and they will be the primary beneficiary of the new beer-and-wine policy. The benefit to Arkansas will be incidental at best.

SEC schools are not exactly strapped for football revenue. And while there may be a modest economic benefit to expanding beer sales inside stadiums, it’s probably not enough to alter existing SEC policy. For some schools, any financial gains would be offset by additional enforcement costs, such as checking IDs.

And most SEC presidents and athletic directors simply don’t want to be perceived as endorsing alcohol use, no matter how much it’s part of the culture of college football. Consider the SEC’s official stance against the use of the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” moniker to describe the annual Florida-Georgia game. The present ban maintains the politically correct compromise of opposing liquor inside the stadium while tolerating its use on the outside—not to mention those who simply sneak hooch into the game. Bootlegging, after all, is another proud southern tradition.