The inquiries have happened regularly for the past year and a half or so, long enough to establish a pattern. Every couple of months, a craft brewery has called the University of Minnesota, looking to team up with the school in a sponsorship or licensing deal.
Every time, the answer has been the same. "We'd say, 'I'm sorry,' " said Matt Kramer, the U's vice president of university relations. "We can't do that."
That may soon change. At a Friday meeting, the governance and policy committee of the U's Board of Regents will discuss a proposal to allow licensing and sponsorships by alcoholic beverage companies, as well as production of alcoholic beverages by the university. That could open the door to beer ads at TCF Bank Stadium, university-branded microbrews and campus cultural events sponsored by wineries, perhaps as soon as next fall.
Current Board of Regents policy forbids alcohol sponsorships and promotions in campus venues and publications. It also prohibits the use of U trademarks in alcohol marketing. In recent years, schools around the country — including 11 of 14 Big Ten members — have dropped similar bans, opening a new stream of revenue that goes primarily toward athletics.
Kramer will lead a presentation at Friday's meeting, outlining changes that could bring an estimated $300,000 per year to Gophers sports. The Regents could vote on the proposal, which has been endorsed by U President Joan Gabel, at their next meeting Feb. 11-12.
"When you look at what's happening nationally, this is an opportunity," Kramer said. "The question becomes, is it worth taking advantage of this?
"The fact that we're regularly approached by alumni-owned [beverage] companies who are hiring our graduates, it just seemed like the right time to at least consider this."
Not everyone agrees
While Kramer said there has been no pushback from groups consulted on the changes — including the faculty senate and student organizations — the idea could stir some controversy. Dr. David Jernigan, who researches how alcohol advertising influences young people, said more than 25 studies show youth who are exposed to those ads are more likely to start drinking.
"The problem with decisions like this is, people see the revenue on the front end," said Jernigan, a professor at Boston University's School of Health. "But they don't see the cost on the back end."
The U has allowed alcoholic beverages to be sold at TCF Bank Stadium since 2012. Last year, the Regents voted to expand alcohol sales to general seating areas at Williams Arena and 3M Arena at Mariucci, after previously allowing it in premium seating.
But the Regents maintained the ban on alcohol marketing and trademark use. In addition, U administrative policy prohibits using the school's name and trademarks "in any manner that could adversely affect the University's image or standing or would for any other reason be inappropriate for a public research university." Alcoholic beverages are the first example listed.
That taboo has been fading as more universities — especially their athletic departments — seek ways to generate more cash. More than 130 of 200 higher-education clients of Learfield IMG College, the U's sports marketing partner, now accept alcohol sponsorship and licensing agreements. The College Football Playoff has an official beer.
In the Big Ten, only the U, Wisconsin and Penn State do not allow such deals.
"Three years ago, it was closer to eight that [permitted the agreements], and six that had yet to," Kramer said. "We started to look at it, but it just wasn't the right time."
Still, alcoholic beverage companies kept asking. Last year, U officials began talking to people in the industry and learning more about how college marketing partnerships worked.
With the Board of Regents planning a regularly scheduled review of the alcohol policy this year, Kramer, Gabel and athletic director Mark Coyle raised the idea of change. While most deals would likely tie into sports, Kramer said alcohol companies also could sponsor performing arts or cultural events. The plan is to partner with a major national company first, then with Minnesota producers.
Some could team up with the U to produce a product, such as a hard cider made from university-developed apples. Amending the policy also could allow for a brewpub on campus, or student-led craft brewing initiatives.
Possible revenue stream
Kramer said support for responsible drinking is "a big part" of the discussion and would be part of any future deals. Jernigan, though, said alcohol use among college students is still a national problem, one that could be exacerbated by on-campus ads.
"The more that young people are exposed to alcohol marketing, the more likely they are to start drinking," he said. "Or if they're already drinking, to drink more.
"That [universities] are normalizing it, that they are adding it into the college environment, it's a little bit like throwing gasoline on a lit fire. This is a population that is already drinking at high-risk levels, and the advertising will be supportive of those behaviors."
As the Regents consider the changes, Kramer stressed the U will continue having "lots and lots of conversations with stakeholders." It may not allow all trademarks to be used; for instance, it could prohibit Goldy Gopher from showing up on beer cans.
If the Regents approve, Learfield IMG College will work with U officials to develop guidelines for potential deals, then solicit bids. Kramer said the goal is to have a deal in place by the 2021 football season.