Policy prohibits alcohol sales at new arena

Courtesy NU Media Relations

Story by Tom Grant, NewsNetNebraska

The Nebraska men’s basketball team was coming off one of its season’s best conference wins over the 11th-ranked Indiana Hoosiers. Excited fans packed the Bob Devaney Sports Center to the tune of more than 11,000. What they saw was a 79-45 beat down by Ohio St. that sent the majority of the season-high crowd home with about 10 minutes left in the game. The attendance at Nebraska’s next home game was 6,683.

The drop of more than 5,000 people could be a concern for Nebraska’s athletic department especially with the brand new, $150 million Pinnacle Bank Arena scheduled to open in 2013.

While the team is struggling, the university is looking for ways to keep fans coming, and staying, at the games. A recent online survey completed by UNL students and men’s basketball supporters indicates the quality of play isn’t the only thing that needs improving in order for attendance to rise. Survey responses indicate another way to attract people to games could be to sell alcohol.

However, UNL employs a strict, no alcohol policy at its athletic events.  Alcohol is not served at Memorial Stadium, the NU Coliseum or the Bob Devaney Sports Center and while drinking booze out of a plastic cup in the surrounding parking garages and horseshoe of Memorial Stadium occurs before every football game day, it is still illegal.

The decision to ban alcohol at all Husker athletic functions is the decision of one group according to Associate Athletic Director Paul Meyers. He says the decision was not the athletic department’s to make.

“(Selling or not selling alcohol) was not our decision,” Meyers said in an email. “It is Regent policy at Nebraska. Tom Osborne is the most logical person to talk with on this.”

Meyers is correct that UNL’s no alcohol policy is a Regent decision. That policy, however, only applies to buildings on campus. Pinnacle Bank Arena is located off campus, thus the decision on whether or not to sell alcohol is, in fact, up to the school.

Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne said in a statement that with the scope of college athletics in mind, Nebraska is no different from many universities.

Devaney Center crowds are beginning to dwindle, Courtesy Photo

“You will find very few athletic departments selling alcohol to the general public at their events, either on or off campus,” Osborne said. “There are a few who sell alcohol to their suite customers but very few sell alcohol to the general public.

Osborne is partially correct. According to a USA Today survey regarding college athletic alcohol policies, 30 percent of Big Ten schools sell alcohol at their respective athletic events. That’s four of the 12 schools in the conference. Fifty percent of Big Ten schools do allow alcohol in a tailgating capacity, with Nebraska not being one of those schools.

Osborne says one of the reasons for not selling alcohol at events is to maintain consistencies in their policy and look out for students.

“The leading cause of death on the college campus is related to alcohol consumption,” Osborne said. “And we find it inconsistent to promote alcohol sales in view of the damage that it does to so many of our young people.”

According to a study commissioned by James C. Turner, executive director of health services for the University of Virginia in November of 2011, suicide was determined to be the actual leading cause of death among students on campus nationwide at 6.18 among 100,000 students. Alcohol related deaths were second at 4.86 among 100,000 students.

SMG, the group chosen to run Pinnacle Bank Arena is one of the largest entertainment managing groups in the world. Tom Lorenz, SMG employee, current manager of Lincoln’s Pershing Center and soon to be director of Pinnacle Bank Arena is prepared to run Lincoln’s new arena like he has other buildings in partnership with UNL.

“The decision to not sell alcohol is strictly a university decision,” Lorenz said. “It has always been that way.”

By choosing to not sell alcohol at athletic events, UNL is missing out on possible profit as they are contractually owed a certain amount of concession sales.

“In the contract the university has with the city, they are entitled to some of the profit from concession sales,” Lorenz said. “Alcohol would be considered a part of concessions if the decision was made to sell it during their events.”

The interest in having the option to purchase alcohol at basketball games is evident. In the online Facebook and message board survey taken by 125 UNL students and basketball supporters, 92 percent of responses want alcohol to be sold at the new Pinnacle Bank Arena. Seventy eight percent said they would attend more games at the Devaney Center if they had the option of buying alcohol. Finally, in response to what would make them more willing to attend games in general, alcohol sales was the second most common response behind higher quality of on-court play at 67 percent.

UNL students surveyed overwhelmingly agreed that the availability of alcohol would increase their likelihood of attending a game. Senior Trey Novotny says selling alcohol at Pinnacle Bank should be an obvious choice.

“Absolutely they need to sell beer at the new arena,” Novotny said. “The way I see it, they’re losing easy money on ticket sales and it would definitely create a better atmosphere for the games. Not because people are drunk, but because it gives everything a more casual feel. The Devaney isn’t fun right now.”

Still, Osborne says that selling alcohol at any Nebraska athletic event would be counterproductive in trying to promote a family atmosphere.

“If you attend a professional game where alcohol is sold, you will often find a very different atmosphere,” Osborne said. “We would like our events to be family friendly where children and those who are under legal drinking age will feel comfortable as well as their parents.

Atmosphere is a big sell for college basketball programs and one of those highly regarded arenas is just a short drive up the interstate at Creighton University.

The private university currently ranks in the top 20 nationwide in attendance with an average of 16,779 people per game.  With a student enrollment that pales in comparison to UNL, Creighton students are still able to pack their assigned section with more than 600 people per game. According to some Bluejay supporters, the reason for their surging attendance is two-fold. The team has been ranked for the majority of the season and the ready availability of alcohol at all home games.

“I think a lot of the students go because they can go to the game, have some drinks and then go out afterwards,” Creighton student Cecilia Daly said. “The game is kind of a precursor to the night.”

Creighton sports information director Rob Anderson says Creighton administrators negotiate the contract with MECA, managing group of the Century Link Center and simply looks to give fans the option on what to buy at games.

“I believe it is a situation where (the contract) is negotiated. For example, the NCAA tournament comes in a month and there won’t be alcohol sales at that because that is part of the NCAA’s stipulations. For (Creighton), we probably figure if the fans would like something to drink, than we can give them that option.”

The President and CEO of MECA Roger Dixon said in a statement the key to successfully selling alcohol at games is informing and training vendors.

“Serving alcoholic beverages in a responsible manner has and always will be a priority for us,” Dixon said. “MECA requires wristbands at all major public events. Along with observations by our staff members, both plain clothes and uniform law enforcement officers are on duty.”

The success of MECA and the Century Link Center has not been overlooked by companies around them. Tom Lorenz says that despite UNL deciding against selling alcohol at its events at Pinnacle Bank, SMG plans on making alcohol sales available at other events his group put on.

“We do plan on selling alcohol at other events, including concerts, at Pinnacle Bank Arena,” Lorenz said.

For UNL student Hans Larsen and other fans of Nebraska basketball, that answer may not be good enough.

“The extra revenue alcohol could bring in might make it possible to drop ticket prices or at least get more people to come watch a game even if the team isn’t any good,” Larsen says. “At this point, they’re willingly missing out on money and killing what could be a great, new atmosphere.”