PSU eyes limited beer, wine sales

Pittsburgh Tribune Review (TNS)

There's little question that college football and beer go hand in hand.

Just ask the thousands of fans who tailgate before and after each home game at Penn State.

Though malt beverages flow freely in the Nittany Lions parking lots, they are prohibited inside the university's 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium.

That may be about to change.

In an era when 34 universities — about 25 percent of the schools in the NCAA's Division I — have opted to sell beer at football games, Penn State trustees soon will grapple with the issue of whether to permit limited alcohol sales inside the stadium.

If they approve the measure, possibly at their May meeting, beer and wine would be available only to fans in the stadium's club seats, suites and reception areas. The Penn State plan, vetted in committee hearings last month, also calls for approving sales at the university's two golf courses and at events in the Bryce Jordan Center, its 15,261-seat multi-purpose arena where the school conducted a successful pilot program last spring selling beer at a series of Garth Brooks concerts.

The stadium, event center and golf courses all are operated by the athletic department.

Nationally, the push to make alcohol available at athletic events goes well beyond a matter of convenience for fans.

Finances: At a time when football coaching salaries at major universities have soared into the seven-figure range and records show overall game attendance has declined to its lowest point since 2003, officials are seeking new ways to support their programs.

“I think this is a trend that is going to continue. Everyone is looking for new revenue sources to make ends meet and to be less reliant on the university to pay the expenses they need to compete,” said Jeff Schemmel, president of the Atlanta-based consulting firm College Sports Solutions.

Schemmel, who said colleges began selling alcohol at sports events about five years ago, knows of no problems at any of those schools, perhaps because administrators structured their policies carefully and “instituted very stringent safeguards.”

David Gray, Penn State's senior vice president for finance and business, said in a statement that limited alcohol sales at sports venues will give the school a competitive edge in “attracting top-performing acts to our venues and in hosting major sporting events beyond the college level.”

The push also is aimed at enhancing the experience of those watching events from pricey private suites and club areas, according to Deputy Athletic Director Phil Esten.

“The practice of alcohol service in private areas has been occurring for years in college stadiums across the nation and patrons are expecting this level of hospitality in suites and clubs,” said Esten, adding that suite holders who currently stock their own beverages would be required to purchase alcohol from a vendor.

Permitting alcohol at the school's Blue and White golf courses is aimed at remaining competitive because all surrounding courses offer such amenities, Esten said.

Moneymakers: Alcohol sales have proved lucrative at several major universities.

The University of Texas reported $1.8 million in profit in its first year. Maryland said it expects to net $500,000 from sales at football and basketball games this year, and West Virginia University, where alcohol has been sold on a limited basis since 2011, said it makes $500,000 to $600,000 a year selling beer and wine at its 60,000-seat Milan Puskar Stadium.

Mike Fragale, WVU's associate athletic director for communications, said game days once were plagued by alcohol-related incidents when fans were permitted to leave the stadium at halftime to tailgate.

But the number of incidents has significantly decreased with a ban that now prohibits fans from leaving and re-entering, Fragale said.

Officials at Maryland also reported a drop in game-day incidents, according to Joe Mullieaux, senior associate director of dining services.

WVU set aside an alcohol-free zone in the stadium, limited the number of drinks to two per person per sale, stopped all sales at the end of the third quarter and made the cost of drinking at the game fairly steep.

“There is a method to our madness, and there is a reason it is $8 to $9 a beer,” Fragale said.

Penn State's plan would be similar to the one in place at the University of Pittsburgh.

E.J. Borghetti, executive associate athletic director for Pitt, said the school limits alcohol sales to the club and suite sections at football games at Heinz Field and at the Petersen Events Center.

Mixed opinions: Longtime Penn State supporters hold differing opinions about the plan.

“For those who pay for boxes and have social events at the game itself, it's a nonissue. On the golf course, it is a nonissue. There is beer at every golf course (in the area),” said Matt Knizner, 51, of Greensburg, a Penn State alumnus who played football for Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions from 1983 through 1987.

He supports the school's decision to limit sales.

“I am totally against having alcohol served to the public or readily available (in all seating sections) at games. You have plenty of time before games and after games to socialize,” Knizner said.

Kathy Kasperik, 45, of Sewickley is president of the Greater Pittsburgh chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association and a longtime season ticket holder.

“My first reaction is I can understand the monetary lure, but I don't think it's necessary in the stadium because we are allowed to tailgate for hours before and after the game,” Kasperik said.

“In a stadium that size, I can see more problems than not. The suites are completely different because you're paying a lot of money for the (suite) license, and they'd have to pay for it,” she said.

But when it comes to general sales to ticket holders 21 and older, “I think not,” Kasperik said.