The University of Illinois held the first athletic game on campus this past Friday where beer was served to general fans inside the stadium. Previously beer and other alcoholic beverages were served in premium seating areas, but the annual Bleacher Bum BBQ had a designated tent area where beer was available to all fans 21+ inside the gates of Illinois Field.
The Bleacher Bum BBQ is the premiere promotional game for Illinois Baseball. The event typically has free food for the first 500 fans, and other giveaways and events sprinkled throughout the night. The past few years have also included a post-game fireworks show.
Adding beer sales to the event served as both a way to attempt to draw more fans to come to the game, and as a trial run of beer sales for future games.
3,227 fans came out to see the Fighting Illini battle the Ohio State Buckeyes — the ninth-largest crowd in Illinois Baseball history.
Thank you to the 3,227 fans that made it an electric atmosphere at Illinois Field. pic.twitter.com/1uka3DQVHR— Illini Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) May 5, 2018
A top ten all-time single game attendance is great, but when you look at some previous Bleacher Bum BBQs, you find that it isn’t as great as it appears.
In 2014’s Bleacher Bum — which did not feature post-game fireworks — 3,185 fans were in attendance. In 2015, 4,019 came through the gates. Now the 2015 team was one of the single greatest teams in Illinois Baseball history finishing with the highest winning percentage in the NCAA that season with a 50-10-1 record. However the 2014 team brought in a similar crowd to this year’s edition, with a team similar in record to the current year — 32-21 compared to 27-16.
The highest attendance in Illinois Baseball history came during the 2009 Bleacher Bum BBQ when a whopping 5,214 fans came out to Illinois Field. The 2009 Illini finished with a 34-20 record.
It’s no secret that Illinois is struggling with attendance at Illinois Football and Men’s Basketball games, but that issues is a problem for most college sports teams across the country as attendance is falling nationwide.
There are many suggested solutions to help bring more fans to games, and serving alcoholic drinks is one of the most common answers. The culture of fans enjoying beer and other adult beverages at sporting events goes back generations, so it would seem that allowing patrons to drink while watching the games would help draw in more fans.
But, as we can see from the lack of an attendance spike for this season’s Bleacher Bum BBQ, overpriced beer may not be that big of a draw.
Even looking outside of the small picture example of Illinois Baseball, we can look to one of the early adopters of alcohol sales in the Big Ten, Minnesota. Minnesota starting selling alcohol at games in 2012, but didn’t see a significant increase in football attendance.
- 2009: 50,805 average attendance, 6-7 record
- 2010: 49,513 average attendance, 3-9 record
- 2011: 47,714 average attendance, 3-9 record
- 2012 *Alcohol sales begin: 46,637 average attendance, 6-7 record
- 2013: 47,797 average attendance, 8-5 record
- 2014: 47,865 average attendance, 8-5 record
- 2015: 52,355 average attendance, 6-7 record
- 2016: 43,814 average attendance, 9-4 record
Minnesota Hockey has also seen a downward trend in attendance over this time.
Now this isn’t a piece to say that Illinois should not serve beer at Fighting Illini games, because they absolutely should. There are many other benefits such as an improved game-day experience for fans, possibly curbing overindulgence at pregame tailgates and gaining another revenue source.
(It should be noted that it might not be a huge revenue source when you consider that there are added costs like staffing more police officers.)
There isn’t a good and compelling reason to not sell beer and wine at college athletic events. However, serving beer isn’t a solution to fix declining attendance. The actual way to solve that problem is to lower cost to an affordable rate for fans and/or destroy every HD TV in America. Take your pick.
Serving alcohol at Illinois events would be an additional benefit for fans who do go to games as it is at other colleges and professional sports. But it isn’t a magic bullet solution to help fill the many empty seats Illinois Football and Men’s Basketball has seen recently.
But if we are going to go through another decade like the last one for Illinois, the very least they can do is let us have an overpriced, lukewarm beer. No ballgame is complete without it.