The new round of debate over alcohol sales at TCF Bank Stadium is a reminder that Minnesota's populist streak often collides with both reality and the state's more lofty aspirations.
On Tuesday the state Senate voted to reverse micromanaging legislation from last year that led to a ban on alcohol sales at University of Minnesota athletic facilities, including in suites and premium boxes at the football stadium. That state-of-the-art facility, maroon-and-gold faithful hope, will help the U's football program break into the upper echelon of the Big Ten.
Its ability to do that will be stunted unless the House follows the Senate's lead.
TCF suites and boxes are designed to compete with other local entertainment options for the spending of corporations and affluent alumni, providing the university with much-needed revenue to fund athletic programs. No Big Ten school, with the possible exception of Northwestern, faces as much local market competition for leisure dollars.
A 2009 national study by Portfolio.com/bizjournals concluded that the Twin Cities market is already overextended in its support for four professional sports franchises, with total personal income of $154 billion, or about $43 billion less than what the study's authors say is necessary. The study used team revenues and ticket prices to estimate the personal income a market needs. The study did not account for the impact of collegiate, minor league or Women's National Basketball Association teams -- all of which are also in play in the Twin Cities, making this one of the most competitive sports markets in the country.
That backdrop is critical in understanding why the debate over alcohol sales at the university is worth having. The university deserves the flexibility to compete for business on a level playing field.
With TCF Bank Stadium, its multimillion-dollar coaches and a desire to rally its students and alumni around winning athletic programs, the U has chosen to be part of the arms race that makes Division I college sports look, smell and feel a lot like professional sports, especially in the suites and boxes of the beautiful new football stadium.
Last year's legislation tied the university's hands by requiring the U to sell alcohol in all of the seating areas at TCF or not at all. Acting responsibly, with the safety of students the priority, university President Robert Bruininks and the Board of Regents decided not to become a Big Ten outlier and opted for the ban. For what should be obvious reasons in this era of frequent campus disturbances and binge drinking, no Big Ten school allows alcohol in general seating in on-campus stadiums. But eight allow drinking in premium seating areas.
The Senate action is a positive sign that the 2010 Legislature might allow the university to make its own decisions about how the stadium should be operated. But the legislation faces a stiffer test in the House, where representatives rode a wave of populism last year and adopted the "beer for one, beer for all'' ultimatum. Leading the populist charge is Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, who has called providing alcohol only in premium seating areas "rather elitist.''
That's nonsense, a kind of impractical, politically opportunistic thinking that will only serve to take money out of the hands of students. The current bill calls for half of the profits from alcohol sales in premium seating to be used to reduce the student stadium fee now being assessed, with the other half funding athletic scholarships.
The U discounted suite rentals after the alcohol ban legislation was passed, and going forward it will lose an estimated $1.3 million annually because of the ban, which also shut down alcohol sales in premium ticket areas at Williams and Mariucci arenas. For corporations deciding how to spend their entertainment bucks, a dry stadium is less attractive.
Legislators should drop the misplaced populism and let the university run its own affairs.