KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Nearly four months before another season of college football kicks off, changes could be coming to how fans enjoy alcohol at athletic games in Michigan.
At Western Michigan’s Waldo Stadium, alcohol is one of many items that fans are not allowed to bring inside. State law also prohibits selling it inside college sports venues. A pair of bipartisan bills in Lansing, however, could scrap the latter.
The bills in question are H.B. 4328 introduced by Rep. Graham Filler, R-Clinton County, and S.B. 247 sponsored by Sen. Sean McCann, D-Kalamazoo.
If signed into law, it would allow the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to issue up to three tavern or Class C liquor licenses for events within the public areas of college football, basketball and hockey stadiums. They would also allow pouring to start as early as one hour before game time.
Lawmakers supporting the bills argue it cuts down on binge drinking ahead of the game, saying Ohio State reported a 65% drop in alcohol-related incidents inside sports venues after starting sales in 2016. Filler and McCann say the new wording would help give Michigan’s colleges, campus public safety departments and athletic departments a chance to better manage those situations.
“Giving universities the option to serve alcohol at their sporting events is about freedom, fairness and recognizing that the responsible consumption of alcohol inside the stadium is much safer than the binge drinking that goes on in the parking lot,” Filler said.
“You have servers who are trained to not overserve people who have had too many,” McCann added. “With those experiences in mind at other places, we hope that translates here as well, if we can get this done.”
The bills in both chambers each have bipartisan support. McCann’s bill in the Senate has multiple sponsors, including Republican Joseph Bellino Jr. of Monroe. Filler’s bill in the House is backed by Ypsilanti Democrat Jimmie Wilson Jr.
“We have seen that when you regulate things in a more controlled way, in this case alcohol, you have better public safety outcomes,” Wilson said. “This legislation shows that we can work together in a bipartisan effort to enhance public safety in a more regulated manner, while still promoting fairness and freedom.”
But it’s not just lawmakers behind this.
Western Michigan University’s athletics director, Dan Bartholomae, says alcohol sales inside venues like Waldo Stadium and Read Fieldhouse are what the fans want.
“We surveyed our fans this year after every single game. We did get a lot of consistent feedback that the presence of alcohol in the general seating areas would be an amenity that fans would be interested in,” Bartholomae said. “Our fans are saying this is something that would make their experience better. We’re looking to increase attendance and we’re looking to get people who come into the games to stay for all four quarters. If that amenity is something that is going to help with that, then we’re interested in looking at it.”
Before coming to WMU, Bartholomae says he saw the decreasing trend of alcohol-related incidents happen during his time at Oregon State.
“We brought alcohol into the football stadium and saw our incident rate actually go down,” Bartholomae explained. “A lot of that … is partnership with public safety. Now, you’ve got more eyes on it. You’re paying more attention. You’re monitoring. And there’s more of a public safety presence, which then allows for a safer environment for your fans.”
With the state law as-is, Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan are the only three schools in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) who do not have access to those permits. In the Big Ten Conference, Michigan and Michigan State are two of six members who don’t publicly sell alcohol at football games.
In their current state, the proposals would only apply to football, basketball and hockey venues at public colleges and universities. But with the bills in committee as of Wednesday, any changes can be made to the language, including extending the licenses to private campuses and other sports venues like baseball, softball and volleyball.
“We’re just happy that there’s a start and that there’s a conversation,” Bartholomae said. “Certainly, if it’s something that proves to be a positive experience for our fans in these venues and the state is willing to look expansion at other venues, that’s also something we’d love to look at and talk about.”
According to McCann, it is unknown exactly when fans can buy alcohol in stadiums if the bills were to be signed into the law during the current legislative session. But it is unlikely to happen before the first kickoff of the 2023 season.