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UNC and NC State got the OK to sell alcohol in stadiums. Now, how do they make it work?

Game day tailgates are a staple of most college experiences for students in North Carolina, but this fall the party could continue into football stadiums and the stands could be filled with more beers than rally towels.

While many UNC System universities are tackling binge-drinking on campus, a new law allowing alcohol to be sold in college stadiums and arenas is giving board members and administrators something new to address. Over the next few weeks they’ll be deciding what their fan experience will look like and whether it might escalate — or even better regulate — the drinking culture on campuses.

Ariel Freedman, a UNC-Chapel Hill student government leader, said if UNC decides to sell alcohol at Kenan Stadium on football Saturdays it has the potential to create a safer environment.

If people are allowed to drink at the game, maybe they won’t be compelled to drink as heavily at pre-game tailgate parties, Freeman said, adding that stadiums also can offer a more controlled drinking environment.

But a new policy needs to be accompanied by programs that teach students about the dangers of binge drinking and that improve mental health support services, Freedman said.

A safer college game day?

Serena Singh, a UNC senior advisor in student government, agrees that with education a new policy has the potential to amplify the university’s efforts to curb binge-drinking and the crimes, such as sexual assault, that are often tied to the issue.

“With tailgating culture people will show up with alcohol in their system, but if people are taught safer drinking procedures at an event where alcohol is being sold then maybe some of those things will be mitigated,” Singh said. “It could end up statistically decreasing the problems we’ve seen with drinking at different events.”

This tactic has worked at other big-time athletics schools, such as West Virginia University, the University of Maryland and The Ohio State University.

West Virginia’s campus police department saw less alcohol-related incidents and made less arrests in and around the stadium after alcohol started being sold at home games. WVU also stopped allowing people to leave at half-time when they introduced alcohol sales, which could have contributed to the decline. N.C. State currently has a similar halftime re-entry policy.

At UMD and OSU, alcohol sales at athletic events also led to a decrease in drinking-related misconduct at games, according to the student newspapers. Maryland also made strict rules to limit alcohol consumption at the games to accompany the policy change.

Nels Popp, co-director of UNC’s Center of Research and Intercollegiate Athletics, recently worked with a graduate student researching the difference in fan behavior before and after a university started selling alcohol at its sports venues.

They analyzed six years of data from campus police at 12 schools, some in Power Five conferences, and found no significant difference in “deviant behavior” before and after in-stadium alcohol sales were allowed. The deviant behavior included criminal activities, such as drunk driving and sexual assaults, and non-criminal activities like a fight in the stands where no one pressed charges.

“If I were an administrator making a decision and weighing out all of these factors, [fan behavior] should not be one of the factors,” Popp said.

He added there is a concern that selling alcohol shifts legal liability to the school if there is a criminal incident. For example, if a drunk person leaves the game, gets behind the wheel of a car and hurts or kills someone in a car accident. He said a school has less protection from being held responsible if it serves alcohol.

The fan experience

Many of the dozens of schools opting to sell alcohol to the general fan base are doing it because they’re struggling to draw fans, Popp said. They see this as a solution, especially at larger schools.

Popp said if UNC or N.C. State decides to do this, it’s not because they’re going to see a windfall of cash. Relative to their budgets, the profits won’t make or break them, he said.

“It’s the fan experience piece that they’re trying to enhance,” Popp said. “I don’t think it’s a money play.”

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UNC fans cheer on the team during the second half of UNC’s victory over Gonzaga in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball national championship game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, Monday, April 3, 2017. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Some campus student leaders, including Freeman and Emma Carter, N.C. State’s student body president, said the change would encourage more people to attend university sporting events.

“I think people will be excited about this, and I think it’s good for revenue,” said Carter. “But I also want to make sure that for students, we are taking into consideration safety measures.”

Carter said the school needs to make sure students don’t end up in dangerous situations.

“We want to make sure that combined with the heat and the allowance of beer and alcohol sales being new at these games that the school is taking the proper precautions,” Carter said.

Such safety measures could include increased security, strict rules on how many drinks someone can buy and policing underage drinking.

Lynsey Romo, an N.C. State associate professor of communications whose research includes health issues and alcohol recovery among college students, said having alcohol readily available can make a college sporting event more dangerous for students and families.

“NC State doesn’t need alcohol to enhance our football and basketball experience,” Romo said. “My concern is having it out in the open could encourage more people to drink or underage drinking and create an environment that isn’t family friendly.”

She sees sporting events as one of the best places on campus where students who don’t want to drink or are struggling with alcohol abuse and trying to stay sober can still have that college experience. It’s also a fun and safe place for families to take their kids without worrying about a beer getting spilled on them or a rowdy fight breaking out among fans with drinks in their hands.

This takes away “that one remaining place where there isn’t drinking everywhere,” Romo said, and students in recovery are “excluded from another aspect of college culture.”

But Romo acknowledged that alcohol sales might be a source of revenue for schools. She said if such a policy is implemented, she hopes some of the profits go toward campus recovery efforts, counseling services and funding more non-drinking opportunities for students.

Decisions for individual campuses

In July, Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bill into law allowing legal beer and wine sales at campus sporting events throughout the UNC System. But it’s up to individual campuses to decide whether to change their policies.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s board members voted in April to allow ABC permits to be issued at athletic facilities in anticipation of that law being passed. That means UNC could start selling alcohol at Kenan Stadium, the Dean E. Smith Center and 13 other athletic facilities.

But approval from the board is only one step of the university’s process to determine if and how alcohol will be sold at sporting events.

“Since the bill was introduced, we have been having conversations and exploring opportunities related to selling alcohol in our stadiums,” UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said in a statement. “Our Trustees support this effort, and now that the bill has been signed, our game management staff and concession partner will soon make a presentation to me about the different scenarios involved in such sales, and I will consult with University leadership about the best path forward.”

N.C. State plans to make a decision on revisions to its alcohol policy at its Board of Trustees meeting on July 10.

Michael Mullen, vice chancellor and dean of academic and student affairs, said if the updated policies are approved, then the sale of beer and wine at athletic venues would be allowed.

N.C. State football coach Dave Doeren previously told The News & Observer that in-stadium alcohol sales sounded like a good idea.

“Obviously, it generates revenue for the university and for the program as well, which everybody is in favor of that,” Doeren said.

If both schools approve the changes, they’ll join ACC teams Wake Forest, Louisville and Syracuse, which already allow general alcoholic beverage sales at football and men’s basketball games.

Other NCAA Division I teams in the UNC System, including East Carolina, Appalachian State, N.C. Central, N.C. A&T, Charlotte, UNC Wilmington, UNC Greensboro, UNC Asheville and Western Carolina, will decide whether to change their own policies.

The new law means Division II schools Elizabeth City State, UNC Pembroke, Winston-Salem State and Fayetteville State can also opt to sell alcohol sales at their stadiums and arenas.

None have made the official change yet, but with football season about two months away, some decisions could come in the next few weeks. And the question of how it impacts binge-drinking on campus is likely to be part of the conversation.

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