It took several years longer than should have been necessary, but the University of Minnesota finally won legislative approval last year to sell alcohol at Gopher football games. The first beer and wine will be poured at today's home opener against the University of New Hampshire.
To make this more than the two-year experiment approved by the Board of Regents, the university needs to show that it can implement the new policy at TCF Bank Stadium without a related uptick in security issues and underage drinking. The administration, legislators and regents will be watching. So will the other Big Ten schools, none of which offer alcohol in general seating areas.
"Quite honestly, it's going to be an experiment for us, this first game," Scott Ellison, the U's associate athletics director, told reporters at a news briefing this week.
The Editorial Board previously supported the U's efforts to offer alcohol in suites and premium seating areas at TCF, arguing that the Athletic Department deserved a level playing field in the competition for revenue from corporations that have multiple ways to allocate their entertainment budgets.
That thinking ran into resistance at the State Capitol, where a populist contingent opposed creating a class of beer and wine elites. After a couple of years of debate, the 2012 Legislature finally came up with the compromise that the U is unveiling this week.
Beer and wine will be available at $7.25 a drink at two locations in the stadium from one hour before kickoff until the end of halftime.
Fans will be limited to two drinks per transaction, which they'll be able to take back to their seats. Anyone who looks 30 or younger will be asked for ID, and a beefed-up security crew will be watching for "pass-offs" to underage fans, Ellison said. Drinkers will queue up in four lines -- two at each beer-tent location.
In other words, TCF on game day will in no way resemble Oktoberfest in Munich or even the off-campus Metrodome, where beer was sold throughout the stadium during Gopher games. Our guess is that long lines at TCF will create some grumbling -- especially at halftime of games with higher attendance -- although U officials said they will adjust if necessary after reviewing Saturday's trial run.
No one should fault the university if it errs on the side of caution, however. Binge drinking is a significant problem on many college campuses, and ensuring the safety of the student body is a basic responsibility of administrators. The U must also weigh the impact of its new policy on nondrinkers and families.
There is some new evidence that the trial run will be successful. Concerned that fans were bingeing before games and smuggling liquor into its stadium, the University of West Virginia started selling beer at football games last year in a counterintuitive attempt to "actually help us gain control" of alcohol consumption, Oliver Luck, the school's athletic director, told Freakonomics Radio in a story featured on American Public Media's "Marketplace."
The first-year results were encouraging: West Virginia's police chief said there were 79 arrests last season, down from 117 in 2010.
Ellison said that 7,000 fans are expected to buy beer or wine during today's first test at the 50,800-seat TCF, not including sales in suites and premium seats. Revenue from alcohol sales will support the Athletic Department.
It's doubtful that the new policy will do much to stem declining student attendance at football games. Only some students are 21 or older; many are likely to be put off by the $7.25 price, and Ellison was quick to say that general seating sales were being "driven toward nonstudents."
To reverse the disappointing attendance trends among apathetic students, head coach Jerry Kill's rebuilding program will need to start showing results on the field. No amount of wine or beer can change that sober reality.
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