Gopher football boosters are toasting a compromise that could soon bring booze to fans in the cheap seats as well as the suites at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium.
The compromise, which overwhelmingly passed the Senate on Wednesday, likely ends years of wrangling over alcohol sales at the new stadium and could boost university revenues by more than $1 million a year. The key element in the agreement addresses a major concern for the U: keeping alcohol out of the hands of underage drinkers by restricting sales and consumption to a confined area such as a beer garden. The deal, which would make the U the only Big Ten school to offer alcohol to football fans in the general seats, still needs to be approved by the House and Gov. Mark Dayton and then would need the stamp of approval from the university's Board of Regents.
The measure, which was included in the omnibus liquor bill, passed the Senate by a 58-4 vote.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, a Virginia DFLer who led the outcry against limiting drinking only to premium seating, said that under the compromise, "Joe Public ... gets to have a beer alongside the whiners and complainers who have been calling me and blaming me for the last several years, the hottie-totties up in the expensive suites. It's a compromise, and that's what we've got to do around here."
DFL Rep. Joe Atkins, House sponsor of the TCF Bank compromise proposal, said his optimism that the solution will stick is growing, but he is still not sure the deal is done.
"This has always been a dicey issue in the House," said Atkins, from of Inver Grove Heights. The Senate has had fewer objections in the past, so the Senate vote does not guarantee success.
"The governor will consider it if it reaches his desk," Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said Wednesday.
Regent Chairwoman Linda Cohen said she was delighted by the compromise.
"We want to be able to sell our suites, particularly for football," Cohen said. "Having the availability of liquor sold in those suites makes them more attractive to corporations and allows us to sell more of the suites at a higher rate, and [that] helps the athletic budget. ... It came down to that this would help the athletic program a great deal, and it seemed to be a reasonable solution. ... But every regent gets to vote the way they want and we'll have to see what happens."
Two years ago, the Legislature balked at the U's idea of selling liquor only to those in the premium suite seats, saying it was "rather elitist." So lawmakers passed legislation that tied liquor sales in the suite seats to a requirement that at least a third of the facility's general seating also have alcohol available.
University officials, concerned that it would be too difficult to keep booze away from underage drinkers, reacted coolly to the all-or-nothing approach and banned alcohol throughout the stadium.
But that meant the university was forced to discount its suites, which was projected to cost the U $1.5 million to $2 million during each of the past two seasons at the new stadium.
University spokesman Chuck Tombarge said the U and three other Big Ten schools don't sell any alcohol in their stadiums; eight sell liquor only in premium seating areas.
Under the compromise struck with Minnesota legislators, football fans in the general seating area would be able to buy and consume alcohol in a confined area where IDs will be checked, Tombarge said. The new deal also will allow alcohol to be sold in the premium seats at hockey and basketball games but not in the general seats, Tombarge said.
The omnibus liquor bill also covers any games that the Minnesota Vikings would play at the TCF Bank Stadium while a new stadium might be under construction. Details about liquor sales during Vikings games are still to be worked out between the university and the team, Cohen said.