CHARLOTTE — There could be a much higher energy level at college football games in North Carolina this year, regardless of what’s going on down on the field.
Credit for that can go to H.B. 389, the bill passed over the summer and signed into law that permits public colleges and universities to sell beer and wine at athletic events.
The practice had been outlawed, although private schools were allowed to sell alcohol at games. Wake Forest has sold alcohol in the stands since 2016, and spectators in Deacon Tower could buy drinks for two years prior to that.
Duke, another private school, doesn’t allow alcohol sales in the general seating bowl at athletic events, and the school doesn’t appear to be considering a change to that policy in the near future.
No firm plans have been announced yet, but NC State and UNC seem to be looking at ways to include alcohol as part of their concessions offerings this season.
While, obviously, alcohol sales will create a new, potentially significant revenue stream at State and Carolina, the impact could be felt in other areas outside the bottom line. The addition of alcohol is expected to cause significant changes to the game-day experience at both Kenan and Carter-Finley Stadium.
Establishing the pass out
NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium has become notorious for the halftime pass out, a practice that, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the effects of alcohol consumption.
Fans at Carter-Finley are allowed to leave the stadium at halftime, to continue their pregame tailgating in the parking lot, then return to their seats for the second half.
The problem is that large numbers of fans were slow to return to the stands, if they ever came back at all.
“Yes, it’s noticeable,” said Wolfpack defensive end James Smith-Williams. “You notice it from the opening kickoff to the second-half kickoff.”
Since arriving at State five years ago, coach Dave Doeren has been an outspoken critic of pass-out policy, urging fans — to little or no avail — to be in their seats and cheering at the start of the second half.
“Selfishly, absolutely, I would love to see everybody staying in there because it helps us win,” Doeren said. “At the end of the day, I think everybody would agree that’s our job here, is to win as many games as we can and do it right the right way, so our fans can enjoy it and, in my opinion, be a part of it, because that’s a strength for us.”
The big lure of returning to the parking lots at halftime is, of course, getting the opportunity to imbibe. If fans can purchase alcohol inside the stadium, the hope is that they’ll remain in place and be there for the second half kickoff.
“For them to be able to buy beer, if that’s important to them, have the opportunity to do that in the shade under the stands at halftime,” Doeren said. “I know there’s going to be a lot of different spots where they can do that. Then be back in there for us.”
“I want my fans to be in the stands the whole game, and I want them to enjoy the experience,” Smith-Williams said. “As long as they’re in the stands, I have no problem with that.”
Come for the drinks, stay for the game
Meanwhile at UNC, the problem hasn’t been getting people to return to their seats, it’s been filling them in the first place. While announced attendance numbers have been impressive, the stands have appeared embarrassingly empty at kickoff, and the stadium atmosphere has been close to nonexistent for some home games.
“One thing we really need to improve on is our game-day atmosphere,” tackle Charlie Heck said. “If that will help, I’m all for it.”
“We’ve got to get people in the seats,” new coach Mack Brown said. “We are selling more tickets, (but) they’ve got to show up. I heard, ‘I don’t want to be out there, it’s too hot.’ Well, all those players are out there, and they have gear on. I don’t want to hear it. If you want to win, you’ve got to show up and help us. And that’s important.”
UNC has offered alcohol sales in their luxury Blue Zone seats for several years. Allowing alcohol sales in the stands runs the risk of devaluing one of the perks of a Blue Zone seat, although Wake Forest hasn’t seemed to have any problem selling Deacon Tower seats since it made alcohol available to everyone.
Fan engagement key to winning
Both schools are hoping alcohol can help give their respective stadiums more of a home-field advantage. While there are still safety and enforcement issues that will need to be resolved, it’s a safe bet that Tar Heel and Wolfpack fans will have the option of purchasing adult beverages in the very near future.
“The culture of NC State, for whatever reason, is that people associate us with beer drinkers,” said Smith-Williams. “That’s fine. I think our fans are excited to have alcohol in the stands. I’m sure all the fans in the state are excited.”