Southern Miss

How and why Southern Miss decided to offer beer sales at football games

The process of bringing beer sales to Southern Miss football games began about a month ago when USM athletic director Jeremy McClain and school officials first discussed the prospect of becoming the first state college to offer alcohol sales at a sporting event.

“The initial conversation was, ‘Are we allowed to do it? Can we do it within the guidelines of Mississippi law?,’” McClain said Wednesday during an interview with the Sun Herald. “Once the attorneys told us at the local level and at the state level that we could, we were good to go. Then, it became a process of, ‘When are we going to do it?’”

McClain, who was hired away from Troy in April, didn’t care to waste time in implementing a new policy on alcohol sales at USM football games, pushing forward with plans to sell beer and light wine at games this season in Hattiesburg.

“I wanted to make sure we were ready, but I really didn’t want to to wait until next year,” he said. “I just felt like going ahead and getting this out there and providing an opportunity for our fans. We really wanted to create an environment that people can enjoy, an environment where they want to stay four quarters and be a part of the game.”

McClain decided it was best not to sell beer at the Aug. 31 season opener against Alcorn State to make sure staff and vendors are properly trained to handle alcohol sales. The first game that beer will be available at USM concessions will be on Sept. 28 for the UTEP contest.

There have been conflicting reports and opinions on the legality of alcohol sales on Mississippi campuses for years. Mississippi Code 67-1-37, current through the 2018 regular legislative session, states that “no alcoholic beverage shall be sold or consumed at any public athletic event at any public school, community or junior college, college or university.”

However, the term “alcoholic beverage” has a specific definition under Mississippi law that describes it as “either a distilled spirit or a wine product that contains more than 5 percent alcohol by weight.” The Mississippi Department of Revenue’s web site says “alcoholic beverages are most often identified as items you may purchase in package stories.”

Beer and light wine aren’t considered alcoholic beverages in Mississippi under those standards.

McClain says multiple lawyers have told USM that there is nothing stopping the school from moving forward with beer and light wine sales at eight different locations inside Roberts Stadium.

“The law isn’t very well written and it has several amendments to it,” McClain said. “That’s why it can be confusing.”

While there was a vocal minority of fans who complained about USM’s decision, McClain’s experience tells him that there won’t likely be a spike in alcohol-related incidents in games at Roberts Stadium.

“We sold beer there at Troy and did it all four years I was there,” he said. “My experience and several studies show that we didn’t have an increase in alcohol-related incidents. We had measures in place like we’ll have this year at Southern Miss to prevent underage drinking and make sure people aren’t over-served. Our incidents (at Troy) were no greater than they would have been had there not been beer sales in the stadium.

“Anybody that’s been to a college event understands you’re dealing with alcohol issues, whether you’re selling it in the stadium or not. We hope it is a more controlled environment where people who do want to have a drink don’t feel like they have to do it all before the game and over-indulge prior to getting in the venue or sneak things that are much stronger than a beer into a game. All those things come into play. It allows us to have a controlled, safer environment.”

McClain emphasized that the addition of alcohol sales is one piece of a larger plan to improve the experience for USM fans in “The Rock.” USM has also significantly cut the prices on menu items like popcorn, hamburgers and hot dogs.

“Having an experience where fans want to stay beyond halftime and into the fourth quarter when the team is fighting to win, that’s the objective,” he said. “There’s a revenue piece to it as well. That can be a six-figure revenue stream and make a difference for us.”

McClain said he plans to make a decision soon on whether to sell beer at other sporting events like baseball and basketball.

“We’ll evaluate the first game or two here at ‘The Rock,’” he said. “We’ve got some facility discussions we need to have with our vendor. Every facility is different with how it functions for baseball and football. We’ll make a decision in plenty time before both seasons.”

Baseball project fundraising

USM baseball coach Scott Berry said at the conclusion of the 2019 season that he hoped to have artificial turf installed at Pete Taylor Park for the 2020 campaign, and it appears his wish will be granted.

“We still have a little fundraising to do,” McClain said. “I’d say we’re 80-90 percent there. We have one last push coming here in the next couple of weeks. It’s not a go as we stand here today, but we’re close to pulling the trigger on it.”

Berry estimates the new turf will cost $1.3 million.

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Patrick Magee is a sports writer who has covered South Mississippi for much of the last two decades. From Southern Miss to high schools, he stays on top of it all.