How will alcohol sales work at Neyland Stadium this fall? Nobody knows (or nobody’s talking).
The city of Knoxville and the stadium’s vendor, Aramark, finalized an agreement this week to keep beer flowing next football season.
The changes: All IDs must be checked, regardless of a customer’s perceived age, and an Aramark employee must be the one to check them. An ordinance was passed in 2021 that allowed volunteers to handle the entire transaction, but that won’t matter in the upcoming season.
This volunteer system was designed to improve the customer service experience across what’s now roughly 160 points of sale in the stadium.
If Aramark doesn’t hire additional employees, Vols fans have a right to worry about lines getting even longer.
Knox News contacted Aramark, which declined to comment about how beer sales will work for the 2023 season under the new agreement.
The good news is alternative systems are in place at stadiums across the country, and Aramark might want to consider implementing them.
Does Aramark have a plan for beer sales next season?
The company is not required to submit a plan for serving alcohol unless it’s acquiring a new permit or is facing underage violations.
The agreement reached with Aramark in the city’s battle over beer permits was the result of private conversations between the parties. The dispute stemmed from three underage sales last season. All three buyers were underage adults working covertly for the Knoxville Police Department.
City spokesperson Kristin Farley said she contacted representatives of the city’s law department at Knox News’ request to see if they could provide additional documents that led to the settlement. The signed agreement between the parties, she was told, is the only written record of their agreement.
Tom Satkowiak, a spokesman for University of Tennessee Athletics, shared the following statement with Knox News on Feb. 16: “Tennessee Athletics prioritizes the game day fan experience, and the university’s expectation is that Aramark will manage its settlement with the city in a way that will not adversely impact any fans visiting our venues.”
If Aramark has a plan, it hasn’t shared it yet. If the company doesn’t, the city signed an agreement without knowing what will change other than who’s checking IDs.
Unique solutions to beer sales at stadiums
Technology has changed the way concessions work at stadiums and could make beer lines more efficient at Neyland Stadium if ID checking is limited to only Aramark employees.
Zippin, a company specializing in cashierless concessions, has systems in place throughout the country.
Customers tap their credit card and pass through a turnstile to access a shopping area stocked with beer and snacks. Artificial intelligence software identifies the customer and what they grab from shelves before charging the card as they exit the turnstile.
A case study of this system provided on Zippin’s website shows customers spent an average of 35 seconds in the store. The system also increased revenue by 78%.
If technology can speed up a line, then perhaps fewer lines are needed. And fewer employees would be needed to check IDs at the turnstile.
Aramark has partnered with Zippin to bring the technology to stadiums. That technology can work at walk-in stores or express lanes, spokesperson Libby Spicer told Knox News, and can easily replace existing concession stands.
Nissan Stadium in Nashville has Zippin Lanes, and the company is working on a strategy to expand into college stadiums.
Technology already is used to scan IDs at Neyland Stadium, Aramark shared with the city as part of a previous remedial plan.
Scanning was in place when one underage sale happened at Neyland last season, but the system was offline at the time, forcing an alcohol server to manually check IDs − an issue Aramark says has now been resolved.
David Jernigan, the assistant dean of public health practice at the Boston University School of Public Health, told Knox News beer kiosks are better than roaming concessions workers when it comes to curbing underage drinking.
But kiosks need to have appropriate policies in place.
How a popular idea might not work (and an unpopular one could)
A wristband system is one idea Vols fans have floated on social media.
Under that method, fans would verify their ID with an employee, who would apply a wristband that shows the customer is at least 21. That wristband would allow the customer to purchase beer throughout the stadium.
“The problem with the wristband system is you’re not sitting there in the stands when people are drinking,” Jernigan said. “The legal-age folks do the buying, then what they do is bring it to their (underage friends).”
This might cut down on underage violations but, perhaps, not consumption.
The city, in its case against Aramark, claimed Neyland Stadium was operated in a “disorderly” manner. The city used University of Tennessee Police Department crime logs to try to support its claim.
While crime logs did show a pattern of public intoxication at Neyland Stadium, a Knox News examination of incidents dating back to 2015 showed this pattern existed before beer sales began in 2019.
In fact, incidents per 100,000 people − roughly the capacity of Neyland Stadium − dropped the first year with beer sales, remained steady the following year and was consistent in 2021 with years when beer was not sold.
Jernigan said there’s no evidence to support adding beer sales to a stadium prevents heavy pregame drinking.
“The other thing, which is not going to be popular, but one of the most effective things to do is jack up the price,” he said. “In my limited experience of following (sports stadiums, specifically), the ones who make it pricey will have less of a problem.”
Jernigan said an increase in prices also could support hiring more employees, but a vendor might not like this solution because it’ll depress sales.
How ‘team effort’ could go a long way at Neyland
A suspension hearing, which never occurred because the sides came to an agreement, is required of any Knoxville bar that has three underage violations in a rolling two-year period.
But with roughly 160 points of sale on any given game day, Neyland Stadium is more than a bar.
“Stadiums are a really unique transaction,” Trevor Estelle, VP of ServSafe’s alcohol and regulatory services, told Knox News. “It’s not like your typical cashier or clerk at a grocery store or your server at a restaurant. … You’ll probably see (the stadium customer) once at the transaction, and that’s the only time you’ll see them.”
ServSafe works with businesses across the country to provide training and promote responsible beer sales.
Part of being responsible, Estelle said, is making sure everyone is trained − not just vendor employees and volunteers, but all stakeholders, from stadium security to local law enforcement.
In restaurants, he said, there can be a “disconnect” between law enforcement and the business, which might be afraid of punishment.
In the case of Neyland Stadium, the city took a punitive approach to the underage violations. Millions of dollars were on the line.
“It’s really a team effort you need to put forth to make sure the fans are having a great experience,” Estelle said.
Tennessee football’s home schedule kicks off Sept. 9 with a game against Austin Peay. Neyland Stadium will host SEC rivals South Carolina, Texas A&M, Georgia and Vanderbilt in 2023.
Ryan Wilusz, downtown reporter for Knox News, can be reached at 865-317-5138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram @knoxscruff.