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Poring over WVU's beer sales proposal

| Sunday, May 1, 2011

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In his effort to get approval for beer sales at football games, West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck has sold local officials on the idea that doing so would improve fan behavior and curb binge drinking.

"Tailgating in many areas has gotten out of hand," said Morgantown Mayor Bill Byrne, who has been critical of the university's fan-behavior problems. "This may be a way to say to people, 'Hey, you don't need to be overindulging out in the parking lot. You can go into the stadium and have a beer with your friends.' "

Luck has proposed selling beer in the stands at Milan Puskar Stadium but also eliminating the university's halftime pass-out policy. That allows spectators to leave the stadium and return at any time in the second half. Many fans have used the opportunity to attend tailgate parties, Luck said.

University president James P. Clements supports Luck in his endeavor, saying his presentation to the university's Board of Governors on April 8 "made a lot of good sense."

University police Chief Bob Roberts said he has supported Luck's premise for years and endorsed the first-year athletic director's plan.

"This will reduce the need for people who want to smuggle stuff in," Roberts said. "Most people are responsible, but there are always that handful of people that become a hassle for you. ... I think the positives outweigh the negatives."

The NCAA doesn't have a rule against schools' selling alcohol at stadiums, but it bans alcohol at its championship events.

Athletic conferences such as the Big East — of which West Virginia and Pitt are members — have the right to ban alcohol sales, but the Big East doesn't, said Chuck Sullivan, the conference's director of communications.

In fact, of the six Bowl Championship Series conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC — the Big East is the only one in which most schools permit alcohol sales in their stadiums' general-seating areas.

No Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 or SEC schools sell beer in those areas, according to officials from those conferences. The SEC has a policy banning alcohol altogether in its schools' stadiums.

Miami is the only ACC school that sells alcohol in general-seating areas, and that's because of a lease agreement with Sun Life Stadium, said Michael Kelly, associate commissioner for football operations.

Some remain skeptical

Luck said he began the process of changing West Virginia's alcohol policy when he saw thousands of fans leave during halftime of games last season and not return.

But approving beer sales — Luck said beers could cost $7 or $8 apiece — won't necessarily keep fans in their seats, some students said.

"I believe many people will simply go to the parking lot at halftime and stay there," said Andrew Hill, a senior majoring in human nutrition and foods. "It will be discouraging and upsetting knowing that I will not be able to go into the parking lot at halftime, and I think it will keep a lot of fans out of the stands (in) the second half."

"Students will still leave whenever they feel like it," said sophomore Travis Sammons, an industrial engineering major. "The real problem isn't alcohol; it's the quality of the team and the competition."

Luck said beer sales could fetch the athletic department upwards of $1.2 million per season. The university is not considering selling liquor.

The measure is before the university's Board of Governors, which must approve a policy change before beer sales could commence. The proposal is in a 30-day comment period that ends May 13. The Board of Governors could vote on the measure at its June 3 meeting. About 250 responses have been submitted regarding the change, though director of university relations John Bolt could not say how many were in favor or against alcohol sales.

Laura Dean-Mooney, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said she is not sure Luck's argument about curbing binge drinking is valid, as binge drinkers typically are men ages 21 to 34.

"I'd guess the typical attendee at a football game would be similar," she said. "It would come down to responsible sales and service."

MADD started a partnership and pilot program with the NFL last season designed to eliminate drunken driving after games. The Buffalo Bills and Oakland Raiders participated in the program. MADD has seen the number of fans signing up as designated drivers double since the program started, Dean-Mooney said.

MADD chapters nationwide have partnered with colleges to promote similar ideals, but the organization has no program with the NCAA, she said.

Weighing drawbacks, benefits

West Virginia would become the sixth Big East football-playing member to approve alcohol sales throughout its stadium, joining Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, South Florida and Syracuse.

West Virginia currently serves alcohol only in luxury suites, as does Pitt. Rutgers prohibits alcohol everywhere in its stadium.

Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said the university has no plans to change its policy.

"We consider our existing alcohol policies at Heinz Field to be the most appropriate, responsible and safe for our fans and visiting schools," he said.

The Big Ten, of which Penn State is a member, does not prohibit its schools from selling alcohol at stadiums, said Brad Traviolia, the conference's deputy commissioner, but officials prefer it be sold only in private suites.

"I am unaware of any members that sell alcohol to the general public," Traviolia said. "When we go to neutral site events and go over what our expectations are in terms of alcohol sales and relate our desire to have it sold just in private areas, (venue officials) will tell us that we are leaving money on the table."

Penn State bans alcohol sales throughout Beaver Stadium, the second-largest college football facility in the country.

"We have very large numbers of people who are going to be there with afternoon and evening games, and we don't think it would be a good mix for the type of atmosphere we want," said Bill Mahon, vice president for university relations.

Luck spoke with officials around the country, including at Connecticut and Louisville, to get advice.

"We just told them if they're going to sell it to make sure to check IDs and make sure that the staffs are properly trained," said Jay Martyn, manager of stadium operations at Rentschler Field, where Connecticut plays. "Most of our problems don't occur because we sell alcohol in the stadium; it happens out in the parking lot where you can't control it. It's the same at any facility in the world."

UConn officials told Luck to eliminate the pass-out policy if alcohol sales are approved, Martyn said.

UConn does not make revenue from alcohol sales because the stadium is a public, state-run facility. Profits go to the state of Connecticut, Martyn said.

Louisville sells alcohol at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and has for three decades since its old stadium sat on the Kentucky State Fairgrounds, said Kenny Klein, senior associate athletic director. The Cardinals have nonalcohol sections, something Luck said West Virginia would explore at Milan Puskar Stadium.

"We made that available as another way to make the stadium appropriate for all fans," Klein said.

Sodexo, one of the largest concessionaires in the United States, would handle obtaining an alcohol license and training workers. Sodexo has contracts with 41 college stadiums. It serves alcohol in concession areas at fewer than five and in luxury suites at fewer than 20, said Sodexo spokeswoman Monica Zimmer.

Luck said alcohol concessions would not be put in the student section of Milan Puskar Stadium, and there would be no alcohol-toting vendors walking stadium aisles. There would be limits to how many beers a fan can buy — likely one or two at a time — and when sales would stop, likely sometime during the third quarter.

"We tried to be as deliberate and rational as we could by talking to other schools and other public safety officials," Luck said. "We think it will give us the opportunity to assuage some of the concerns adults may have had about bringing their kids because of the behavior and ultimately having a little bit more control over the alcohol consumption."

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