DESTIN, Fla. – Walk through the revolving glass doors of the Hilton Sandestin Hotel, pass the smiling faces at the front desk, swing a left at the sky-lit indoor pool, and there for all to see, just 50 paces from the entrance, is a fully stocked bar serving adult beverages.
Some of the most important men in college football made this stroll over the last three days, their destination a group of plush ballrooms that play host to pivotal legislative discussions at the annual Southeastern Conference meetings.
To get there, they must of course pass that bar, the liquor jugs, wine bottles and beer taps a reminder of a topic debated annually here: the stadium-wide sale of alcohol.
College football’s most powerful league outlaws the sale of alcohol in general seating areas of its venues. This policy is the only one of its kind among the five major conferences. As of Thursday night, a rule some consider archaic will remain in place, at least for another full athletic season. Conversations on a presidential level about the topic are expected to come Friday, but many feel a change will not be made this week.
This comes just days after the NCAA lifted a long-standing ban on alcohol sales at its championship events, citing a successful two-year pilot program. In the SEC, prohibition reigns.
“There’s been some debate,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “I don’t see us opening that up any time soon as a league.”
The policy falls under the game management section of SEC legislation and can only be changed through a majority vote of the 14 SEC chancellors and presidents. Behind closed doors, a divide exists among these key decision-makers. In some cases, the divide occurs even outside of the room. Some presidents and athletic directors of the same school hold differing opinions on the subject. Generally, both groups are split in three ways: those who want the policy to remain as is; those who wish the conference would lift it, giving individual schools the autonomy to make alcohol sale decisions; and those who are undecided.
“It’s pretty divided,” Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer said Wednesday. “There is a sense that there’s some that will never do it and some that want to do it now. There are a few on either end and most people [are] in the middle.”
There has never been an official vote, nor has there even been a proposal or motion by a league member for such a vote. These are moves that would be documented and on the record, something decision-makers try to avoid if voting would not produce a change.
The sale of beer and wine is spreading quickly throughout college football. About 40 schools offered beer, at least, to the general public in 2016; only seven did so in 2007. Alcohol is sold at most bowl games and College Football Playoff events, including bowls with SEC tie-ins, like the Sugar Bowl and Outback Bowl.
So who’s standing in the way in the SEC? And why? Those are the questions that, from the outside, have lingered over these meetings for at least three years.
As many as eight SEC schools fall in the undecided portion of the debate, and as many as three others have school presidents against it. Kentucky and Georgia are the strongest advocates to keep the policy as is.
Revealing public comments on such a touchy subject are hard to come by, but LSU president F. King Alexander and athletic director Joe Alleva have been clear: They are for alcohol sales stadium-wide. Alleva and other proponents cite as reasons additional revenue streams, a potential boost in attendance and the curtailing of binge drinking at tailgating events and incidents inside the venues.
Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne and Florida AD Stricklin both said this week that they’re “not leading the charge” on the policy change. Other athletic directors gave generic answers, carefully walking the line on a delicate issue in a conference whose footprint covers an area of the country known as the “Bible Belt”.
The optics of selling alcohol throughout a stadium are not appealing to some school officials, and the potential liability problems that come with it are a turn-off, too.
“There’s people that are ready to move forward, people really not interested in moving forward and then there’s a group of schools trying to figure out which way they want to go,” South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner said. “For me personally, I think there are more questions than there are answers. You look at it from one point: What kind of revenue generation could there be? Look at it from another standpoint: Does it [fit] the family friendly atmosphere?”
Many of the 14 athletic directors feel as if the issue should be left up to individual schools. Some presidents don’t hold the same feelings, wanting to keep such a sensitive policy in the hands of the conference.
Why would schools not want to have the autonomy to make their own decisions?
“There’s a lot of things we do as a conference collectively,” Byrne said. “We think there’s value. What the SEC represents and doing things as a conference has worked very well for us. There’s a lot of subject that falls on them.”
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has made clear this spring that the policy is not the commissioner’s to control or change. It’s up to the schools.
“I’m certain among 14 institutions, there are those who would advocate leaving it to institutions,” he said earlier this week. “There are those who think the policy isn’t appropriate for a collegiate setting, given the bulk of our students who are attending are underage. We’ve promoted an intense but family atmosphere around our games. Now you’re balancing those points of conversation. I think the dialogue has been healthy and respectful, but the membership will change that policy if it does.”
The 14 SEC schools are not all the same. They reside, of course, in different states and regions with varying cultural divides.
“I think there’s some sentiment that says let it be a local decision,” Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said. “Each institution is different. There’s some sentiment of, ‘Let’s [keep] it a league decision, an SEC decision, so we don’t have to make it a local decision.’
“I personally believe that each institution is different and they’re going to have their different objectives.”
For the two Mississippi schools, lifting the ban is only half the battle. State law prohibits the sale of alcohol on public university campuses. If the SEC’s alcohol ban is eventually lifted, there is a sense that Mississippi legislators would be more open to changing state law, to avoid putting Mississippi State and Ole Miss at a disadvantage to its SEC brethren.
Those involved in private discussions at SEC meetings past and present believe change to the alcohol policy will happen. It is a matter of when, one said, not if. With each passing year, more presidents jump on board.
As schools ready for the change, they are also skirting the current policy by implementing new premium seating areas where alcohol can be sold, a trend sweeping through college athletics as a way to get butts in seats and, notably for the SEC, to sell booze. The SEC’s ban only covers general seating areas, restricting alcohol sales to private, controlled spaces.
At least two SEC programs, Texas A&M and Auburn, have opened a type of beer garden in their baseball stadiums, selling alcohol in sequestered areas that are separated from bleacher seating. LSU opened a football version of this in 2017 atop the south end zone, turning a 1,500-seat general admission area with bleacher seating into a designated space for alcohol sales that the school calls The Skyline Club.
Florida created a beer garden just outside of its football stadium during last month’s spring game, a successful venture that the school will extend into the season, Stricklin said.
Admittance into the spaces at Texas A&M and Auburn is $5. Tickets in the Skyline Club are as low as $45. The league approved plans for these newly created areas, as they met “the expectation on oversight, private area and controlled space for review,” Sankey said in April.
The use of premium seating to sell alcohol is expected to continue. It was a topic of discussion at athletic director meetings Wednesday, Fulmer said.
“Each school ends up making their own decision to find private spaces to sell and serve beer,” Fulmer said.
Nearly each SEC school over the last few years has added premium seating to its football stadium. Auburn is in the process of turning its press box into a club area, and both Mississippi State and Ole Miss have added club levels and the ever-popular field-level seating.
Missouri is spending $98 million on a new south end zone complex that will include 16 new suites, a 750-person field-level club and a 1,254-seat indoor club area. Tennessee announced plans for a $340 million Neyland Stadium renovation project that includes more premium seating, and Arkansas is in the process of completing $160 million in renovations to Razorback Stadium, with premium areas as a focus.
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s stadium underwent a $110 million renovation in 2015 that actually decreased the capacity by 1,000 seats. Why? Because those renovations included replacing some general seating areas with loge box seats, club levels and suites.
“I do think we continue to find ways where we create areas where people can responsibly enjoy beverages, like they currently do in some of our premium spaces,” Stricklin said this week.
The revenue stream from stadium-wide alcohol sales is significant. For instance, Texas generated about $3 million in revenue from alcohol sales in 2016.
Studies have supported the theory that binge drinking at tailgates and alcohol-related incidents actually diminish with the sale of alcohol in stadiums. The NCAA sold beer and wine at some championship events over the last two years as part of a pilot program. It diminished the number of alcohol-related incidents, “in some cases significantly,” a report from the governing body said.
As the athletic director at West Virginia in 2011, Oliver Luck led a movement to begin selling alcohol stadium-wide there.
“Binge drinking is curtailed,” said Luck, now an executive with the NCAA, in an interview Thursday. “Instead of people shotgunning beers or chugging hard liquor before a game … they don’t have to do that. They know they can buy a beer or glass of wine during the game.”
Luck said incidents of binge drinking dropped “25 to 30%” at West Virginia.
Sankey still has his concerns. During a conference in Birmingham in April, he expressed a potential problem with how additional alcohol may affect late-game situations.
“If there’s a steady flow [of alcohol] through the game, what are the outcomes?” he said. “I can remember some NFL games where it flows freely that I have attended where you end up in some really uncomfortable situations.”
The NCAA, Luck said, has never carried a policy related to stadium alcohol sales, a misconception among some fans. In fact, the governing body is trending in the other direction.
“Right now, softball championships are taking place,” Luck said. “There’s beer being sold for a third straight year in Oklahoma City.”
In the SEC, the wait continues.