As we have touched on over the past few weeks at U.D., the Group of Five is going to find itself separated more and more from the bright lights of the Power 5. As the larger conferences move on to bigger and better revenue opportunities, it falls on the shoulders of the already limited G5 Athletic Departments to try and keep pace financially. Just because an "All Sun Belt, All the Time" network deal is unlikely in the coming few years doesn't mean the G5 conferences should be put out to pasture. There are a variety of ways that the Sun Belt, AAC, and other Group of 5 schools can fundraise to keep pace with their taller, more handsome, and significantly wealthier older brothers.
This past week, ESPN reported at length the selling of alcoholic beverages at college football venues in the upcoming season. 32 schools will permit beer sales inside the stadium during the game, more than doubling the number of stadiums that sold beer at collegiate events just five years ago.
As a surprise to no one, 27 of the 32 schools are members of Group of 5 conferences. When interviewed by ESPN, Troy athletic director John Hartwell estimated that beer would account for $200,000 in commissions this season alone - all of which will be going directly back into the department's pocket, which Hartwell says will be used to pay a debt on Troy's football facilities.
Detractors of the selling of alcohol say the cost outweighs the financial benefit. They say exposing beer drinkers to a predominantly under-21 crowd at the game will encourage them to drink illegally, and that keeping civility among the already frenzied stadium crowd should be priority one.
Keeping the peace? Sure. But to those who think sacrificing the six-figure commission check from 6 home games will keep college kids from drinking... well... when you come back from whatever dream world you live in, I would like to give you a tour of Baton Rouge on a Saturday afternoon this Fall.
In addition to the financial benefits, proponents of alcohol sales are also pointing to the fact that if beer is available inside the stadium, you can expect to see a reduction in pre-game binge drinking, as fans won't be so keen on loading up for 4 hours prior to kick off. G5 Conferences- leading the charge against binge drinking!
But there is a larger point at hand here, and it feels like the G5 schools are slowly beginning to catch on to a much larger theme. The Power Five are playing a different game on the field, so they say, and want to govern themselves appropriately off of it. Let Them. The opportunities for Group of Five schools to rebrand themselves is limitless.
The goal for the Sun Belt and the MAC should not be to convert SEC and B1G game day patrons. That's not going to happen. Instead, the goal is to bring the remaining chunk of fans, those who spend their Saturdays at home or in bars, into the stadium instead. Then, once they're inside, find ways to boost revenue.
Spring training baseball games in Arizona and Florida consistently draw near capacity crowds during March each year. The majority of fans who attend these games aren't there because they have an interest in how the Cubs' AA pitching rotation is going to shake out, but rather for the ‘experience.'
The weather is nice, the beer is flowing, and the proximity to the game from those seats is unbeatable for the price of admission. Using Spring training as a model, G5 schools have an opportunity to tap into the ‘experience' of college football in a way Power 5 schools can't.
In addition to reasonably priced beer, general admission seating or lawn seating where applicable would shake up a stale game day experience. The tailgate outside the stadium is great in part due to the fluidity of social interactions. In the stadium, you're stuck interacting with the people directly around you. Let's loosen up a little and create an in-game experience similar to the parking lot, where drinking, eating, and lounging are encouraged.
In order to change up the viewing experience, G5 schools can offer field passes to a larger number of fans and students. Ohio University already has an end zone lawn that is ideal for embracing the tailgate experience inside the stadium.
Now, how great would it be to have access around the track and down around the end zone to watch a game at eye level? This is unimaginable for the average fan attending LSU/'Bama, but at a G5 home game, it can become the norm, and a money maker for the program at that.
A reason college football is so exceptional is that it is so emblematic of the cultural regionalism throughout the U.S. Yet, every stadium offers essentially the same vanilla food options of hot dogs, Papa John's, and some sort of burger.
For the G5 schools to differentiate themselves, they ought to bring the local flavors of their college towns inside the stadium. Let's allow food trucks to set themselves up within the confines of the stadium, offer them a profit-sharing split similar to the one outlined by Troy and Sodexo, and watch the bottom line increase. Now that beers are available within the stadium, we can add local beer vendors alongside the food trucks to accompany the local feel.
Grass lawn seats with local beer, food trucks, and sideline passes create a unique game day experience as an extension of the tailgate going on in the parking lot, and to a larger extent the collegiate culture as a whole. When G5 schools like Texas State are battling attendance issues and risking the team's opportunities to compete in Bowl Games, change is necessary, and small adjustments like these can go a long way.
And remember - we're putting an end to binge drinking, too.