Flowing Beer Can Lead To Flow Of Cash For Colleges, But Raises Public Health Concerns

The controversial highway billboards featuring the Husky mascot next to a Coors beer bottle caused a stir in Connecticut this past week, but they also placed UConn among a number of schools across the country that have associated with beer companies to boost their sports budgets.

Schools capitalizing on alcohol as a part of the college fans’ game-day experience has become an increasing trend in NCAA athletics. Whether in the form of associations to company logos, radio and television advertisements, or sales at stadiums, flowing beer can translate into a flow of cash for college sports programs trying to compete in a multibillion-dollar industry.

“What we’ve seen happen is an increase in the involvement of alcohol companies in college sports marketing over the last three to four years,” said Scott Bussen, a spokesman for MillerCoors. “Colleges and athletic departments have started looking for additional ways to create revenue.”

But that can present a challenge for institutions as they try to balance athletic department efforts to compete in the increasingly high-stakes arena of collegiate sports against on-campus efforts to combat binge drinking and the problems that often follow excessive alcohol use.

For some, the conflict in message is stark.

George Hacker, a longtime advocate for alcohol abuse prevention, said beer advertising in association with colleges “overwhelms most of the prevention activities that school administrators attempt.”

Alcohol abuse, according to federal statistics, leads to an estimated 1,800 deaths, contributes to 599,000 injuries, and is a factor in 97,000 sexual assaults of 18-24 year-olds each year. At UConn, alcohol education starts during freshman orientation and is included in Greek life, residential life, and athletics.

It’s not as if college students have to be convinced to drink alcohol, said Hacker, the former director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public interest.

But “that conflation of drinking and college life is a deflection of what college really should be about, and the producers are very happy to take advantage of that.”

Across the country, athletics departments are weighing the pros and cons of alcohol products and signs on campus. The decision to associate the UConn Husky logo with Coors Beer was quickly reversed after a backlash to the billboards carrying that message. UConn President Susan Herbst issued a statement criticizing the Coors billboards, saying that “UConn cannot appear to endorse drinking among our students.”

That decision stands in contrast to other colleges that have embraced alcohol as a part of football culture.

‘Bourbon’s Part Of Our Culture’

The University of Louisville, for example, has raised $2.5 million in the past three years through a promotion with Maker’s Mark, by selling bottles of the Kentucky company’s staple 80-proof bourbon — with coaches’ faces stamped on the label. Sports information director Kenny Klein said the athletic department will put the money toward construction of a new academic center for student-athletes.

“Bourbon’s part of our culture. … These are keepsake bottles,” Klein said.

This fall, 21 colleges will sell alcohol at campus stadiums, double the number from five years ago, according to a recent survey by the Associated Press. Louisville is on that list, and Klein said selling alcohol at games actually enhances safety. Fewer people bring flasks into the stadium, he says, and the school can halt sales after the third quarter.

Southern Methodist University in Dallas, in announcing last month that beer will be sold at football games for the first time this fall, described the policy as a “growing trend in college athletics.”

“It’s simply an amenity that fans expect in a professional sports market like Dallas,” said SMU athletic department spokesman Brad Sutton.

The University of Houston, Cincinnati University and Tulane University in New Orleans are otherAmerican Athletic Conference institutions that have adopted this policy.

UConn fans can purchase alcohol at Rentschler Field games because the facility is state-managed, but concession revenues — about half of which come from alcohol — do not benefit the athletic department. Gampel Pavilion, the campus sports facility, is dry, and officials say it will stay that way.

“It’s safe to say that for the foreseeable future, beer will not be sold” at Gampel, said UConn athletic department spokesman Michael Enright. “We try to limit it in the campus community pretty tightly. … We do what we believe is right.”




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