Sprint Center has sold alcohol on public concourses for the Big 12 Conference men’s tournament for five years. (Courtesy Sprint Center)

NCAA tourney allows beer, wine sales in public spaces for first time

Tap the keg and pop the cork.  

For the first time in NCAA history, sports venues playing host to the men’s basketball tournament can sell beer and wine in public spaces, apart from the suites and clubs. First- and second-round sites begin play today, followed by the Sweet 16 starting next Thursday, and the tourney culminates April 6 with the Final Four and April 8 with the national championship game at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The same is true for the women’s basketball tournament, which tips off Friday and ends April 7 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.

It’s a big change for the governing body of college athletics, which has tested the new policy over the past few years at championships in other sports. Over the past year, the NCAA approved the measure as a permanent feature for the men’s basketball tournament, confirmed officials from the group’s headquarters in Indianapolis.

All told, nine of the 10 arenas hosting men’s tournament games plan to sell alcohol as part of general concessions, providing a key revenue driver that facilities are accustomed to having for most events.

The exception is Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C., run by the University of South Carolina and the only on-campus venue involved in the 2019 tournament. The arena hosts first- and second-round games this week that include two No. 1 seeds, Duke and Virginia. It’s the first time Colonial Life Arena has been a part of the men’s tournament.

“The NCAA gave us the option to sell beer and wine in public areas and we decided not to do so,” said Charles Bloom, South Carolina’s executive associate athletic director, chief of staff and chief commercial officer. “We do not sell alcohol (in public areas) for our men’s and women’s basketball games. We felt it was important to maintain that consistency.”

Thirsty fans in South Carolina can buy beer, wine and hard liquor next door at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center for the first two days of tournament action. The facility is producing the Segra Fan Fest Experience, a free two-day event set for Thursday and Friday.

Elsewhere, arenas will be stocked with beer and wine for the tournament, with some operational restrictions set by the NCAA. Vendors will not be allowed to replenish stands with packaged beer and wine after the teams enter the facility, which is consistent with suite operations at past NCAA tournaments.

“We have to be more strategic because we can’t move carts of beer from storage to other levels,” said Brenda Tinnen, AEG’s senior vice president and general manager at Sprint Center, which is hosting next week’s Midwest Regional. “We do it overnight.”

In addition, alcohol signs in the seating bowl must be covered up per NCAA restrictions.

“We still have to ‘sterilize’ the bowl to a degree per NCAA rules,” said David Touhey, president of venues for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, owner of Capital One Arena in Washington, which plays host to the East Regional. “The concourse was always less ‘sterile,’ but now with digital signs, it’s a matter of rotation vs. having a fixed sign.”

In Kansas City, Mo., over the past five years, Sprint Center has sold alcohol on public concourses for the Big 12 Conference men’s basketball tournament. Arena officials have seen an improvement in fan behavior tied to alcohol sales and crowd flow, Tinnen said.

For the Big 12 tournament, Tinnen has seen a more even flow of patrons entering the arena now that fans recognize they can buy alcohol at the venue. That’s especially true for hoops fans partying at the Power & Light District, the entertainment complex across the street from Sprint Center. They can finish that last drink without having to rush over to the arena, Tinnen said.

“People would pound three to four drinks really quick and then come to the game and then their buzz would start to wear off and then we would be left continuing to take care of them,” she said.

To some extent, the policy has essentially slowed down their alcohol intake, she said.

 “I don’t care whose liver it is; you’re only able to process so much at a time,” Tinnen said. “It lets them spread it out over the game instead of thinking, ‘I’ve got to hurry up and finish these because I can’t drink across the street.’ For the guests and our staff, it’s added an awful lot to the experience in the building. We don’t have such rowdy people coming right at the beginning and stirring things up.”

At big league facilities, the new policy meets the expectations for fans accustomed to buying a beer for NBA and NHL games plus concerts at both Capital One Arena and Nationwide Arena, which has first- and second-round games.

Capital One Arena has played host to the Big Ten, Atlantic 10 and Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments over the past three years, and beer and wine have been available on the public concourses, Touhey said. Aramark, the arena’s food provider, also sells beer and wine in general concessions for Georgetown men’s basketball games.

“It was more of a strange thing when we didn’t sell alcohol, because we sell it for every other event,” Touhey said. “The NCAA was literally the only event where we didn’t sell it. Previously, for NCAA events, we had to cover alcohol and move product out. There’s always more work to do for things you don’t normally do.”

“The biggest thing is it’s a positive for the fans,” he said. “They wanted it. My experience over the years has been that there’s always been fewer issues when you sell alcohol than when you limit it because those who want it are going to get it elsewhere.”

In Columbus, apart from high school events and commencements, the NCAA was the “last adopter,” said Xen Riggs, Ohio State University’s associate vice president of business advancement. As part of his position, Riggs oversees operations at both Nationwide Arena and Value City Arena on campus, where beer has been sold in public spaces at Ohio State men’s basketball for the past five years.

At Nationwide Arena, “it’s just a matter of opening up the beer taps,” Riggs said. “It’s not really a big seller for these types of events. It’s not like it’s a big rock show or anything.”

Still, it’s part of the fan experience and it’s nice to see the NCAA finally get on board with its new policy, said John Page, Spectra’s president of content for arenas and stadiums. XL Center in Hartford, Conn., and Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, two Spectra-managed buildings, are both part of this year’s tournament.

“The NCAA really controls a vast majority of what goes in the arena for its events, but we’re starting to see alcohol sales come back into play (on campus) as a revenue driver,” Page said. “A lot of schools have opened that ‘spigot’ up and fans want the same experience they have for their local teams. It’s no different for the NCAA. If you can prove that you can manage that process, there’s no reason it can’t be handled respectfully and responsibly.”