ROBINSON: Alcohol revenue should be used to reduce student fees   

A bill in the North Carolina General Assembly would give public universities access to a new stream of revenue: alcohol sales at university sporting events. If the bill passes, universities should use the new money to decrease student athletic fees. 

House Bill 389 was passed by the NC House on April 16 and by the Senate on June 17. It is now awaiting Governor Cooper’s signature. The bill has support from 14 of the schools in the UNC system—all except UNC School of the Arts (which doesn’t host sporting events) and UNC Pembroke. 

Trustees at the 14 schools signed a letter in support of the bill: 

We, the undersigned, representing the Chairs of our respective Boards of Trustees of Constituent Institutions of the University of North Carolina System, have reviewed the attached draft of the proposed bill entitled “An Act to Authorize Public Colleges and Universities to Allow Alcohol Sales at Stadiums, Athletic Facilities, and Arenas Located on School Property.” We support this proposed bill as drafted and would appreciate your consideration of advancing this bill through your respective chambers. 

Many states already allow alcohol to be sold at public university stadiums. Revenues from the sales range from under $100,000 per year to more than $1 million. In 2017, Ohio State netted $1.2 million from alcohol sales in its football stadium. Schools have found that they can sell alcohol at a modest-to-notable profit without threatening the safety of spectators. 

It’s unlikely that any North Carolina teams would earn that much from alcohol sales, but even a small amount of revenue could make a big difference to students. Students’ athletics fees in the UNC system range from $232 per year at NC State to $899.31 at Elizabeth City State. The median athletics fee is $781. At many schools, the athletics fee is the largest fee students pay—higher than fees for student services, student health, campus security, and even debt service. 

In-state students at Elizabeth City State University pay almost as much in athletics fees as they do in yearly tuition. 

Yet students do not flock to UNC schools to be a funding source for sports. They’re focused on learning and earning a degree, and university leaders need to find revenue streams to support students’ academic pursuits. 

These high athletics fees are not unusual. Nor are they evenly distributed: An article published in the Journal of SPORT in 2018 showed that “the colleges and universities that provide the highest institutional subsidies to college athletics are far too often schools that serve a student population that faces the greatest academic challenges and financial need.”  

Athletics fees, in other words, do the most economic harm to the students who can least afford them. High student athletics fees and other institutional subsidies decrease access to higher education and increase student debt. That’s hardly in line with North Carolina’s Constitution, which states that higher education should be free, “as far as practicable.” 

Universities have two options if they want to stop relying on students to subsidize sports. The first, embodied in this bill, is to find new revenues so that athletics departments can operate in the black without subsidies from students. NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill come close already.  

The other option is to play at a lower division—which may be the better route for most schools in the UNC system. After all, lower-division teams still create the oft-cited benefits of sports for their schools: collegiality, school spirit, and opportunities for physical activity and healthy competition. And it costs far less. Schools might not be able to use sports as a branding opportunity, but they would give students a better value for their money. 

For too long, athletics programs have enriched themselves at the expense of students. House Bill 389 and the discussion it has created around athletics revenues are an invitation for universities to imagine something better.