Baseball and beer? Winthrop experiments with alcohol sales at ballpark
St. Patrick’s Day, 2019 was the perfect day to get a feel for how alcohol sales have been going at Winthrop baseball games.
The weather was clear and the sun beaming as the Eagles hosted conference rival Charleston Southern in the final contest of a three-game series. The Winthrop Ballpark concession stand poured green-tinted beers in honor of the Irish holiday closely associated with alcohol consumption.
But far from a typical St. Patrick’s Day throwdown like you might find in Boston or Savannah, Ga., the crowd at Winthrop was relaxed and fairly quiet. There were a few hundred fans enjoying some of the first warm, and dry, weather of the burgeoning spring. And there were more than a few plastic cups full of green beer. ‘
But if the beer wasn’t St. Patty’s-colored, it would have otherwise been difficult to notice its presence. That’s completely fine with Winthrop athletic director Ken Halpin, who pushed the idea into existence.
When alcohol sales at Winthrop baseball and softball games were announced in February, it was deemed an experiment by the school.
“If successful,” read the press release, “we intend to expand the program to events at the Coliseum.”
So what would constitute success? Halpin is tracking three criteria that, if met, could lead to alcohol sales at Winthrop basketball games in the future.
1. No catastrophic alcohol-related incidents
Francis Marion became the first school in South Carolina to sell alcohol at college sporting events, in 2014.
In the years since, College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina, The Citadel, and now Winthrop have followed suit in some fashion.
The main obstacle to alcohol sales at college sporting events appears to have been the view of some critics that beer and wine offerings would lead to a free-for-all among drunken students. Experiences at The Citadel and Francis Marion, and so far Winthrop, have countered that argument.
FMU athletic director Murray Hartzler said that his school has had three incidents at home baseball games this season and that they all stemmed from adult fans of opposing teams. And none of the situations were serious enough to require police involvement.
The Citadel has had similarly safe results selling beer at football games, including to the school’s cadets, despite some initial resistance from school alums and stakeholders.
“But the president supported it and that point it became pretty easy,” said athletic director Mike Capaccio. “The key was the commandant’s support, who is the head of the cadet corps, because we do allow cadets to drink if they’re 21. So when he told me there wasn’t gonna be any problem, then I was cool. And we haven’t had any problems at all.”
Winthrop hasn’t either, according to Halpin. There have been zero alcohol-related incidents so far this spring at Winthrop Ballpark or the Terry Softball Fields complex. That’s a good sign for Winthrop fans that would like to drink a beer or two at basketball games in the future. Because the experience has to be safe.
“That’s our No. 1 non-negotiable position,” said Halpin.
Hartzler, Capaccio and Halpin learned that the majority of drinkers at their schools’ college sporting events aren’t students. In Hartzler’s experience, most college students aren’t willing to plunk down $7 for a beer at a baseball game.
And if students do decide to drink a beer or a plastic cup of wine at a Winthrop baseball game this spring, it’s far safer than doing so secretly in a dormitory.
“It’s one of the only environments where a student could consume alcohol that’s a controlled environment, where consumption and safety are regulated,” said Halpin.
Sodexo USA, Winthrop’s food and beverage vendor for athletic events, uses specially-trained servers at events to sell alcohol that know how to spot someone who has had too much to drink, or prevent someone from reaching that point while at the ballpark.
Ximena Perez-Velazco, a senior and Winthrop’s student body president, hasn’t had an alcoholic drink at an Eagles baseball or softball game yet. But she’s thrilled that her classmates have been entrusted with the responsibility to do so if they wanted.
“It speaks to Winthrop’s faith in us as students,” she said. “My one hope for our students is that they will take that accountability and run with it. At the end of the day, we are adults.”
2. The revenue needs to be worth the additional work/effort
Clemson and South Carolina do not sell alcohol at any of their sporting events, the latter because the SEC prohibits alcohol sales at its member schools’ games.
For years, the NCAA didn’t allow alcohol sales at its postseason events, like the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, or the Division I cross country southeast regional that Winthrop hosted last fall. But that rule changed in April, 2018.
Capaccio thinks that much of the traditional resistance to selling alcohol at college sporting events was cultural, especially in the southern states.
“We have found that it’s been very painless,” he said. “It’s gone very, very well.”
At a midweek March baseball game between Davidson and Winthrop, a couple of dads sat in the Winthrop Ballpark stands eating hot dogs, each with a beer in hand. One of them, Heath Sessions, joked “we came here for the hot dogs.” He wasn’t aware that Winthrop was selling beer at baseball games until he showed up with several other dads and their kids, all of whom live in a nearby neighborhood.
“It’s not a swing one way or the other,” Sessions said about the influence of beer sales on his decision to attend Winthrop games. But “it definitely doesn’t hurt.”
Hartzler considers alcohol sales at Francis Marion baseball games similarly. Don’t expect FMU, or Winthrop, to host “Thirsty Thursdays” or any similar alcohol-centric promotions.
“This isn’t minor league baseball, this isn’t Major League baseball, that’s not what we’re gonna promote,” said Hartzler. “It’s an amenity, an added thing.”
Domestic beers cost $5 and craft beers $7 at Winthrop Ballpark. How many of those would Winthrop have to sell for the alcohol sales experiment to be deemed revenue-positive? It’s not entirely clear.
Halpin said that Winthrop baseball attendance only averages a couple hundred fans per game, so he’s been using percentages during progress reports delivered to Winthrop’s board of trustees, instead of total sales figures. Wet weather has blanketed Rock Hill this spring, likely hurting sales figures, but Halpin said that 40 percent of the school’s concession sales at baseball and softball home games so far this season have come from alcohol sales.
“We’re still testing it to see what the future is. No decisions have been made,” he said. “But so far, it’s been a positive experience.”
3. The concessions experience in the Coliseum must be improved first
If you went to a Winthrop basketball game this past season, it’s possible you experienced slow concessions lines.
Halpin said that Winthrop won’t sell alcohol at home basketball games, “until we’re able to create a customer experience that doesn’t slow the lines. We are aware that moving this into the Coliseum could slow the concession lines.”
Several issues affect the Coliseum’s concession stand lines: there are only four concession stands, and there have been incidences of short staffing, especially when attendances were over 3,500. The building is over 30 years old and there have been problems with sluggish wireless internet slowing point-of-sales devices and their speed processing credit and debit cards.
Winthrop basketball fans can’t visibly see concessions line when they’re in their Coliseum seats, so they risk missing the action when they head up to the main concourse. Halpin thinks some kind of fan interaction app could help with that issue; fans could check the length of concessions lines on their phone before leaving their seat.
Halpin also wants to have more mobile selling stands -- for example, a kiosk selling only bottled water -- and some mobile hawkers, people moving through the seated areas selling popcorn or candy or drinks... or maybe even beer.
Would you like Winthrop to sell alcohol at home basketball games in the future?
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