Alcohol and games. It’s hard to think of a duo that American sports fans love more.
This spring’s Student Government elections proved just that. Of the 1,944 AU students who voted in the March election, 81 percent voted to pass a referendum to open a discussion with the University about alcohol sales at on-campus athletics games, in hopes that it would boost attendance and foster school spirit among current students and alumni.
“Students oftentimes go off-campus to sporting events because on-campus sporting events are not permitted to allow the full sports experience, which includes the sale of alcoholic beverages,” the referendum stated. “As other peer institutions transition towards allowing such sales, the AU athletics department has an opportunity to gain the similar benefits and provide the best game day experience possible for its students and alumni.”
The referendum began as a conversation on how to increase attendance, according to outgoing SG Vice President Leela Najafi, who originally proposed the idea.
When AU students attend home games at Bender Arena, they are often met with empty seats and a population of either undergraduate attendees or eager parents from the away team.
One obvious demographic is missing: alumni. Proponents of the referendum hope that a new alcohol policy could change that.
Alumni attendance at games is crucial to the athletic department because of the financial support and community that they build, said Andrew Smith, AU’s associate athletic director.
“Our initiative is always to get fans in the seats and make money,” Smith said. “We’re always thinking of ideas, and that’s how this came up.”
An Eagle review of attendance numbers at men’s basketball games – the highest attended sport at AU by a wide margin – for the past four seasons found that the median number of fans this season was 738. The most-attended home game of the 2018-19 season had 1,330 fans in attendance, which was when AU played the University of Maryland Eastern Shore on Dec. 22.
Last season, the men’s basketball team’s median attendance figure was 544, roughly three quarters of the figure from 2018-19. George Washington University, in comparison, had a median of 2,325 fans in attendance at men’s basketball games this past season.
To address this issue, Najafi brought her idea to the attention of the Board of Trustees’ Athletics Committee at a meeting on Feb. 28. They discussed a course of action that may encourage more alumni to return to their alma mater for home games: selling alcohol.
“Last semester, I held some events with athletics and had conversations with them,” Najafi said. “I personally saw that it was something we were lacking in comparison to other sports experiences.”
The board committee encouraged Najafi to present the idea to the SG Senate to see if it would garner student interest and be put on the ballot in March. With the referendum’s passage, it became clear that selling alcohol at games attracted support from students and, perhaps, some more bodies to Bender.
How other D.C.-area schools handle alcohol at sporting events
The referendum began as a conversation about increasing attendance at home games and opened into a larger discussion seeking student opinion, Najafi said. Much of the initial dialogue referenced other universities who currently sell alcohol at sports games.
The University of Maryland sells beer at the XFINITY Center concession stands during men’s and women’s basketball games, and they place limits on the amount purchased: one beer per person per transaction. Each drink is $8. Georgetown University's men’s basketball team plays at Capital One Arena, which independently sells alcohol to fans of age.
George Washington University, whose median attendance at men’s basketball games this season was more than three times AU’s attendance, occasionally offers alcohol to students through various events.
But rather than seeing a bump in fan engagement, an Eagle analysis of attendance data showed that game attendance has been steadily declining since the 2015-2016 season – even though GW’s athletic department began its alcohol-included initiative in 2017.
The department’s Wine Down Fridays include “an open bar with a selection of wines for fans of age” before specific Friday games in the Colonials Club, the Smith Center’s hospitality room. This event began during the 2017-18 athletic year, according to Brian Sereno, GW’s associate athletic director for communications.
Fans have to purchase a ticket to attend Wine Down Fridays before they occur, and alcohol is not allowed to leave the Club, Sereno said in an email. Infrequent tailgates include free food and alcoholic drinks for fans of age as well.
In the last few years, the number of colleges selling alcohol at athletic events has been steadily on the rise. In the 2018 season, 52 NCAA-affiliated schools opened the sale of alcohol at on – or off – campus events.
“Working in college athletics, we follow what’s going on,” Smith said. “We just know that it’s a trend and it’s being discussed at a lot of schools, but there’s obviously a lot that goes into it.”
Students, officials weigh how selling alcohol at AU would affect attendance
The sale of alcohol on campus isn’t a new idea. Since 2016, AU itself has been a “damp” campus, meaning that students over the age of 21 can possess alcohol in residence halls, The Eagle previously reported. In addition, many campus venues – including SIS Founders Room, Constitutional Hall, Mary Graydon Center 200 and Katzen Arts Center – allow alcohol provided by a licensed vendor.
Additionally, the Bender Arena Skybox currently provides beer and wine service through catering for guests watching from the luxury seating.
Skybox tickets are available for alumni and organizations of graduate students, but because of AU’s current alcohol policy, the athletics department does not offer them for undergraduate groups, Smith said.
“If the University policy is changed, the athletic department will have a thorough conversation on whether or not to maintain our current policy or open it up to a wider audience,” Smith said in an April 4 email following the passage of the referendum.
The current policy on alcohol is still upheld by the athletics department, Smith said.
“It’s not an athletics department policy, [and] we obviously abide by everything the University has,” Smith said. “We just want to have a seat at that table to have that conversation if the University is willing to consider the possibilities.”
With student voice proving the desire for the sale of alcohol at games, the University is now considering the referendum. On Najafi’s part, the next step is reaching out to alumni, who were cited in University President Sylvia Burwell’s five-year strategic plan as crucial to AU’s future.
“From here forward, it’s up to the Office of Campus Life to actually take the steps forward to make it possible,” Najafi said. “They’re going to have to do their risk assessment, and they’re going to have to find ways to meet those challenges and overcome them as other schools have done.”
Traci Callandrillo, the assistant vice president of campus life, referred The Eagle to Yoo-Jin Kang, who is the coordinator for alcohol and other drugs initiatives in AU’s Health Promotion and Advocacy Center.
Kang, who spoke to The Eagle in October about AU’s intense alcohol culture, said that HPAC was not consulted during the formation of the referendum and was unaware of its passage until contacted by a reporter.
“We would love to be involved in future conversations about this referendum and plan to reach out to Student Government to discuss potential collaboration,” Kang wrote in an email. “We don't fully know the context as to how this referendum came to be and who else was involved so I think it would be great for our team to learn about that as well!”
Fanta Aw, the vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence, said she had met with the students proposing the change and appreciated their initiative and efforts. She cautioned against adopting the new policy too quickly, however, saying that a comprehensive examination of the pros and cons would be conducted by administrators.
“This is not a change that we would take lightly, so we need to do our homework,” Aw said in a phone interview. “If the goal is increasing school spirit, then we need to think holistically about improving school spirit through athletics, and whether alcohol is so central to the solution.”
Aw also wondered how much of an impact the sale of alcohol would have on attendance – most students who live on campus aren’t yet 21 and therefore can’t take advantage of the opportunity, she said. The athletics and risk management offices will be consulted, she said, along with important University stakeholders.
Najafi thinks that overcoming these challenges could lead to beneficial sponsorship opportunity and increased alumni engagement. Schools like Ohio State University began selling alcohol at games and saw a massive decrease in alcohol-related incidents when students were able to moderately drink beer in the stands, rather than tailgating before.
While tailgates are not a major concern at AU, the other beneficial outcomes seen at Ohio State strike close to home.
“This could create a stream of revenue that could go toward what students need,” Najafi said. “[Ohio State] used that stream of revenue to meet their needs, [such as] hiring and training police officers. They allocated $50,000 toward researching the effects of alcohol consumption.”
Opinions are mixed about how the sale of alcohol would affect attendance. AU Blue Crew, a student-led group within the athletics department charged with increasing fan engagement, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Blue Crew sponsors “District Days” – which feature free pizza, drinks, T-shirts and occasional special items like smoothies and burritos – with the hope that they can boost attendance at games.
The Screamin’ Eagles Pep Band declined to comment, stating that “it feels like a conflict of interest to talk about attendance at [the athletic department’s] games.”
Some students, like 21-year-old senior Miriam Starobin, do not believe that bringing alcohol into Bender will affect student attendance. Starobin said that AU “doesn’t have school spirit,” with internships and jobs dominating students’ free time, but she herself would be more interested in going to a game.
“As a non-sports person, sports is way more fun with alcohol,” Starobin said. “I think $7 is a reasonable price for a drink, and it might get students to come.”
On the other hand, 22-year-old senior Hanah Lee thinks that selling alcohol to fans could directly increase attendance at games. She said she would pay roughly $5 for a drink in Bender.
“Alcohol is expensive in D.C., and if alcohol was sold at a reasonable price, people could watch AU sports instead of going out to sports bars,” Lee said.
With the referendum’s passing and vocal student approval, Smith said that he intends to be in communication with the University to initiate the first steps with on-campus alcohol sales.
“There has already been initial correspondence between our offices,” Smith wrote in an April 4 email. “However, there will be a more detailed look this summer.”
Dan Papscun contributed reporting to this story.
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's April 2019 print edition.