David Joles, AP
Sept. 8, 2012 - A beer sits atop a garbage can as Minnesota college football fans fans cheer at a game.

Trouble’s brewing, as universities seeking additional revenues are turning to public beer sales at college football stadiums. This year, 32 universities fielding Division I football teams will sell beer to the general public at their home games.

Consider the factors at hand:

  • A good share of the college crowd includes many younger college students and their peers who often are below the legal drinking age.
  • Games draw tens of thousands of spectators, meaning ultra-high volumes of traffic on the roads and in parking locations around the stadiums, with the flow of alcohol starting well before the actual game in tailgate gatherings.
  • And a sense of both power in numbers and personal anonymity when in large groups — especially when combined with decision-making that is impaired by alcohol — could result in disorderly conduct at best and dangerous situations at worst.
All in all, it’s a risky mix.

But the buzz in the stands at college football stadiums seems to be the fans want a sustained buzz in the stands. Or maybe a revised cheer from one side of fans to another: “We’ve got spirits, yes, we do! We’ve got spirits. How ’bout you?”

The NCAA doesn’t sell alcohol at its championship events, including the daddy-of-all men’s basketball tournaments. But it doesn't regulate alcohol sales, nor do nearly all of the collegiate conferences, leaving the decision up to individual schools.

The majority of universities ban beer and alcohol sales in general seating areas at football games — including both the Southeastern Conference and the 23-school California state university system — for philosophical or religious reasons as well as worries about crowd control, the appearance of embracing binge drinking or the perception of profiting off alcohol. If they allow it at all, most colleges have kept alcohol restricted to premium-seating areas — more evidence of schools linking alcohol availability and sales to revenue streams with the big-bucks fans.

And big bucks are what universities need — to pay for athletic programs and facilities, not to mention increased costs now that a recent court ruling favoring college athletes will lead to the providing of full-cost attendance scholarships, long-term health care coverage and expanded meal benefits. Many — but not all — of the universities selling beer to the public are institutions with limited athletic revenues (see accompanying box).

“I know why the question is relevant for some,” said Nebraska athletics director Shawn Eichorst in an Associated Press report. “For me, the bottom line does matter. But at what point does it outweigh what you’re trying to do, trying to keep the civility?”

Pittsburgh athletics director Steve Pederson agreed, telling USA Today: “With students and families, that’s just not the environment we want to create.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving opposes alcohol in general in a college setting because of the large numbers of under-21 students. “Kids are watching adults all the time,” national president Jan Withers told the Associated Press. “If they see the only way to have fun is to drink a lot, then they’re going to model after that. That’s not the message we want to be sending to them.”

To say nothing of MADD’s worry of having traffic streaming away from stadiums and out of parking lots after a night college football game with plenty of inebriated drivers.

Proponents of public beer sales at college football games will point to pre-game tailgating and all of its extensive and unsupervised alcohol drinking, to professional sporting events where beer and alcohol sales and consumption, and to the little-by-little encroachment in other sports, such as Arizona selling beer at its home baseball games and Texas selling beer and wine at selected home sporting events, including men’s and women’s basketball.

Most college officials are standing pat — for now. “It’s a combination of things,” said Texas A&M athletics director Eric Hyman to USA Today. “It’s college athletics. It’s the culture of the area. If society changes, there could be changes.”

At best, public sales of beer at college football games is a trade-off — increased revenues versus security concerns, fan behavior issues and post-game traffic issues where alcohol-related damages, injuries and even death could end up coming back to wipe out all those revenues and more in litigation.

Sounds like a trade-off not worth making.

32 schools with public beer sales

For the 2014 season, 32 of the 128 universities with Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams will sell beer to the general public at their home football games. With 11 of the 32 stadiums being off-campus municipal facilities, that leaves 21 on-campus stadiums — more than half of the number with public beer sales just five years ago.

That 32 includes the first-year trio of North Texas, Southern Methodist and Troy as well as several members of the Mountain West Conference — current home of Utah State University and former league for the University of Utah and Brigham Young University. MWC schools with public beer sales at on- or off-campus stadiums include Colorado State, Hawaii, Nevada, Nevada-Las Vegas and San Diego State.

Most of the 32 are from smaller conferences, outside the so-called “Power 5” major conferences enjoying cash-laden TV contracts and mega-payout bowl tie-ins — schools like Akron, Georgia State, Texas-San Antonio and Troy that are scrambling for any revenue possible.

But some are from big-time programs (Syracuse, SMU, Houston) and even the Power 5 conferences, such as Louisville (Atlantic Coast), Miami (Atlantic Coast), Minnesota (Big Ten) and West Virginia (Big 12).