Applause for Oklahoma State and deputy athletic director Chad Weiberg for today’s big news about beer sales, and for yesterday’s headlines about enhancements to the overall fan experience.
This has been percolating ever since AD Mike Holder announced renovations to Boone Pickens Stadium two years ago to remove seats in favor of creating more space for OSU fans, and it really picked up steam when OSU revealed, finally, construction of a humongous, $5 million video replay board that is nearly finished.
This past spring, OSU launched a pilot program to sell beer at baseball and softball games. It was a success, apparently.
On Wednesday, OSU announced a plan to implement $1.5 million in concessions upgrades. Seriously, who wants hot dogs and pretzels and stale nachos any more? Put food in the stadium that people actually want to eat. Smart.
Now, beer at football and basketball games. In football, beer will be sold at up to 22 locations next to existing concession stands and will include craft selections.
Oh, and a new policy: no re-entry if you exit the stadium. Didn’t get enough tailgating in (OSU’s new policy opens the lots at 8 a.m. regardless of kickoff time)? OK, then your football day is done. Of course, if you’d like to stick around and watch the second half, there’s Chick-fil-A over here and free water over there and cool zones and Pie Five Pizza and lots, lots more.
“Everything that we are doing,” Weiberg said in an Orange Power Studios video clip attached to Thursday’s press release, “comes back to trying to enhance the fan experience.”
As much as anything, Weiberg and OSU are showing good business sense. In addition to more money coming into the coffers — pretty huge for a school that ranked 40th nationally and fifth in the Big 12 Conference in athletic department revenue in 2016-17 — this is a move that keeps Cowboy fans in the stadium. It’s a common problem for college football teams nationwide, and certainly in Stillwater, when fans leave at halftime to get a little tailgate action in.
“It’s important that they understand they’re as much a part of our team as our team is,” Weiberg said. “Our team notices when the stands are full. So we want them to be here cheering on the Cowboys.”
Empty seats are a blight on college sports. So giving fans a multitude of incentives to stick around is simply good business.
Beer sales is at the forefront. OU sells alcohol, but only in premium sections. Tulsa, which fights the problem of small crowds and low revenue more than anyone, recently began allowing beer sales to all fans.
“That’s something that the department has been working on for a number of years and studying,” Weiberg said. “We believe it is an important part of enhancing the fan experience because it is just a choice that people have. It’s something that we’ve provided in our premium areas for a number of years. We certainly have talked to our peer institutions that have moved in that direction. We had the pilot program this spring that went well in baseball and softball. So it’s something that we don’t take lightly, and we will continue to monitor that. But it’s something that we think our fans want and will enjoy and enjoy responsibly.”
If college athletic departments are going to act like big businesses, then they probably would be wise to consider shedding the stigma that comes with selling booze at “institutions of higher learning.”
As home entertainment options have proliferated, attendance at live sporting events, especially for colleges, has dwindled. OSU actually has performed pretty well, with last year’s average of 56,790 ranking fourth in school history. But the top three were 2011, 2015 and 2013. So that means last year, even with a reduction in capacity, was down.
The future of college athletic may very well depend on attendance from the next generation of fans. So OSU is wisely investing in this generation. If today’s Cowboy fans have a great game-day experience, they’re more likely to bring their kids and thus create new Cowboy fans for years to come.
“We’re trying to improve the gameday experience for our fans in a number of different ways,” Weiberg said. “It’s an ongoing initiative. We’ll start to see the changes this year, we hope, but it’s something that we’re not gonna stop working on. We’ll continue to make those improvements throughout the coming years.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.