NCAA takes step toward widening alcohol sales at events

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The NCAA is a step closer to allowing alcohol sales at many of its Division I championship events.

During last week’s NCAA governance meetings at UCLA, the association’s Board of Governors—the top board overseeing all three NCAA divisions—rescinded its regulation outlawing all alcohol sales at any NCAA-sanctioned postseason event and handed over the decision on whether to sell beer and wine at championship events to each division’s leadership.

This move comes less than a year after the Indianapolis-based NCAA conducted a pilot program to allow alcohol sales at a limited number of events so association leaders could gather data to make a long-term decision regarding the controversial issue.

While the Division II leaders took a hard pass on selling alcohol at events last week and Division III bosses decided to kick the can down the road, the Division I Board of Directors took more immediate interest.

The board asked the Division I Council to consider legislation that would allow beer and wine sales at some championships final sites as soon as the 2018-19 season. 

The sites that would be allowed to sell alcohol must already be set up to sell alcohol for non-NCAA events. For instance, you couldn’t roll out a cooler or a keg and start selling beers in a field at the NCAA cross country championship event.

The Division I Council is expected to study the issue and report back to the board with a concrete proposal to sell beer and wine at some of its championship events—likely including the men’s and women’s Final Fours, sources said.

The Division I Board of Directors said its action was the result of favorable data gathered regarding fan experience and the reduction of alcohol-related incidents at championship events that were part of last year’s pilot program that allowed the sale of beer and wine.

“Several of our Division I member schools are selling alcohol at their campus-sponsored, regular-season events,” said Eric Kaler, president at the University of Minnesota and chairman of the Division I Board of Directors. “Moving toward alcohol sales at championships only makes sense from both a fan experience and safety perspective.”

While the NCAA currently allows its member schools to sell beer and wine at its own sporting events, it has largely steered clear of alcohol sales at NCAA-sanctioned postseason events—until last year, when alcohol was sold at the College World Series softball tournament and the much larger College World Series baseball tourney in Omaha. 

Sources think the Division I Council won’t take long in composing a recommendation for the board of directors, which now has the final say on the matter with respect to Division I postseason events.

NCAA championships in lacrosse, wrestling, volleyball and ice hockey will likely be selling beer by 2018, said sources close to the NCAA. And sports marketers think now that beer and wine will almost certainly be sold at the 2019 Final Fours. 

While the immediate discussion is centered on allowing beer and wine sales at Final Fours, one source told IBJ there is already preliminary talks about allowing beer sales at every round of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

That would be good news for event organizers and host sites, which make a significant amount of money from alcohol sales at events.

Some school administrators have argued that it creates a safer environment if schools take control of alcohol sales—and consumption—at their events. Oliver Luck was a champion—and pioneer—of this practice while serving as athletic director at West Virginia. Luck is now executive vice president for regulatory affairs for the NCAA.

A growing number of schools see alcohol as the latest weapon in the arms race to raise cash to compete.

Purdue University announced in June that the school would expand the sale of alcohol at its football venue and offer it to the general public at its basketball arena.

Beer and wine is now available for purchase throughout Mackey Arena and Ross-Ade Stadium, with the exception of the concourse areas immediately adjacent to student sections. 

Ohio State University and the University of Minnesota make it three in the Big Ten to join the ranks of those schools selling alcohol at sporting events, and sports marketers said holdouts like Indiana University won’t be able to resist for long.

IU Athletic Director Fred Glass said school officials have no plans to expand beer and wine sales to the general public—but he acknowledged the idea has been discussed.

Butler University and the University of Notre Dame, both private schools, have declined thus far to sell alcohol to the general public at their sports events.

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