To beer or not to beer? More Big Ten schools are selling alcohol throughout their football stadiums.
Sarah Lehr / Lansing State Journal
EAST LANSING – John Sahajdack of Waterford stopped stirring a bowl of chili so he could jab the spoon into the air for emphasis.
A good-natured argument had erupted between Sahajdack and his friend, Bob Piggott, also of Waterford, during a Michigan State University tailgate last month.
Sahajdack, a 1990 MSU alum, doesn’t think the university should sell start selling alcohol inside the football stadium. It would be too much trouble to keep beer from underage students, he said, and it would lead to “dumb behavior.”
MSU does not allow alcohol in Spartan Stadium, other than in the premium seats inside climate-controlled skyboxes. The University of Michigan does not allow alcohol anywhere in Michigan Stadium. The topic may come up more often, though, as more college programs opt for in-stadium sales for most ticketholders. Four schools in the Big Ten already have.
Piggot, who plans to send his daughter to MSU next school year, thinks MSU should change its policy. It should be no different than buying beer at a Detroit Lions football game or a Detroit Tigers baseball game, he said.
“Ninety-nine percent of people at a Michigan State game are responsible adults,” Piggott said. “I’m 49 years old. I should be able to enjoy a beer while I watch a football game.”
Proponents say beer is one way to attract fans and boost ticket sales. This fall, Purdue University became the latest Big Ten school to serve beer throughout the stadium, with the exception of its student section. Ohio State made the switch last year.
MSU and U-M have no plans to be the fifth and sixth Big Ten programs to make beer widely available in their stadiums, in part because state law prevents it.
Jason Cody, an MSU spokesman, referred to section 7 of the state’s Liquor Control Code of 1998.
The code prohibits liquor licenses for intercollegiate football stadiums, unless the football stadium is being used to host a professional soccer or hockey game, a Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs spokesman said. The state added those provisions for special events held at Michigan Stadium.
Mark Burzych, an attorney specializing in liquor licensing at the law firm Fahey Schultz Burzych Rhodes, said MSU was able to get a liquor license for the Huntington Club because those premium seats are in a separate building that is not physically attached to the rest of Spartan Stadium.
A seat in the Huntington Club requires a donation of $3,000 to $6,500.
If MSU wanted to bring beer to the regular seats during football games, a change in state law would be necessary, Burzych said.
But, Burzych added that he believes the state legislature would be amenable to such a change if MSU or U-M asked for it.
State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said the topic has never come up during his tenure in the legislature, which includes 13 years the House and Senate. Jones, an MSU alumnus, serves on the Senate’s Regulatory Reform Commission, which would consider changes to the state’s liquor licensing law.
“There’s plenty of alcohol at the tailgates, so I don’t see why they would need to have it in the stadiums, as well,” Jones said.
Impact of alcohol
Some theorize that selling beer inside stadiums will reduce binge drinking at tailgate parties outside the stadiums. That idea holds that fans overindulge before the game because they know they will face hours in an arena with no adult beverages.
George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health, is skeptical, calling such arguments “anecdotal.”
Koob noted that aggregate data do not show a strong positive or negative effect from introducing beer sales. That’s because the majority of college arenas still ban or limit alcohol and there are few studies on the issue.
“The experiment is going on right now,” Koob said. “It is a fact that, if you increase the availability of alcohol, you will see more drinking.”
Michigan State’s own data do show spikes in misconduct on football Saturdays.
Last year, the average number of arrests by MSU police on a football home game day was 32. Those numbers, provided by the university in response to a public-records request, apply to the full 24 hours of the game’s date.
By comparison, on Sept.10, the Saturday of the Spartans’ 2016 bye week, MSU Police arrested two people. And on Dec. 3, the Saturday after the final game of the season, there were zero arrests.
The charges on 2016 football Saturdays included simple assault, disorderly conduct, driving under the influence, trespassing and marijuana possession.
The effect of in-stadium beer sales will depend on a university’s policies and enforcement, Koob said. If universities do sell alcohol, he said, they should check IDs and enforce rules against public intoxication.
“In some sense, the stadium is a microcosm of the community,” Koob said. “We need a culture of responsible drinking.”
MSU’s official policy is that open containers of alcohol are prohibited in public areas of campus. MSU Police relax enforcement on home game days, although those drinking must be at least 21 and kegs are prohibited.
And, two decades ago, the university banned all alcohol at Munn Field, a popular game-day parking area which had become known for rowdy tailgating. Now it’s promoted as the site for alcohol-free family tailgating.
Across the Big Ten
Spartan Stadium holds some 75,000 fans, compared to more than 100,000 at Ohio Stadium, home of the Buckeyes.
Last season, the first in which Ohio State University served beer stadium-wide, sales generated $1,166,497 for the university, an OSU spokesman said.
The university used $600,000 of that money to hire four full-time campus police officers.
The debut of stadium beer sales coincided with a drop in recorded alcohol-related incidents — such as, arrests, citations and ejections — on OSU football Saturdays compared to 2015 home game days.
The majority of Big Ten Football stadiums restrict alcohol, but don’t ban it completely. Like MSU, Illinois, Iowa, Rutgers, Penn State, Indiana, Northwestern and Wisconsin permit alcohol only in select areas, such as premium seating for donors.
Only twoBig Ten schools, U-M and Nebraska, do not allow alcohol anywhere in their football stadiums.
The four Big Ten schools that allow alcohol throughout the stadium are OSU, Purdue, Maryland and Minnesota.
Could it work?
MSU junior Alexis Garbo doesn’t think her school should follow their example.
Spartan games have a distinctive atmosphere, she said, and alcohol sales would alter that.
“What I like about football now is it makes me feel like we’re a family,” said Garbo, an animal science major from Saline.
MSU Student Body President Lorenzo Santavicca said he’s heard similar sentiments from students at other Big Ten schools.
“Once you start selling alcohol, it becomes about everything but the game,” said Santavicca, a senior studying international relations and economics.
MSU’s student government does not have an official position on stadium beer sales, Santavicca said. He believes the university needs to research the issue further, but said he’s concerned about alcohol contributing to post-game misconduct, including sexual assault.
Spartan fan Holly Duncan, of Stockbridge believes stadium beer sales would be manageable, as long as security kicks out fans who are excessively drunk or unruly.
She doesn’t think high prices will deter people from buying a beer or two. Inside Ohio Stadium, for example, domestic beer like Budweiser or Coors costs $8. A local beer, like Millersburg, or a premium brand, like Blue Moon, costs $9.
People are willing to pay steep game day prices for pop and snacks, Duncan said. She doesn’t see why beer should be any different.
“For me, it’s like going to a concert,” Duncan said. “It might be different if you have season tickets, but I don’t go that often. When I’m at a game, I’m splurging.”
Izzy Nebel, a sophomore political science major from Munising, doesn’t share Duncan’s view. Nebel thinks alcohol would just make games too hectic.
Asked if students would drink less at pregame tailgates if they could buy beer inside the stadium, she laughed.
“Students are going to keep drinking,” Nebel said, “like they always do.”
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