KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Court/field stormings have become all the rage -- or cliché, depending on your view.
• Half the Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd, it seemed, was on the field Nov. 30 the night Auburn beat Alabama. End line-to-end line in a claustrophobic, hysterical house party.
• More recently, a student was allowed to run across Cal-Santa Barbara court right into the face of Hawaii coach Gib Arnold.
• San Diego State's students couldn't contain themselves Saturday after a conference-clinching win over New Mexico. Utah Valley and New Mexico State were engaged in an infamous court-storming brawl. Basketball cognoscenti scoffed when even almighty North Carolina had its court rushed by students after a win over Duke.
The scenes have become as potentially dangerous as they are frequent. USA Today reported in early February there had been at least a dozen court stormings -- in the previous month.
To this sketchy brew, the Big 12 intends to add alcohol. Intentionally. When the Big 12 men's basketball tournament begins Wednesday, beer and wine will be served for the first time in nine years.
The reason may surprise you.
“To curb some binge drinking,” said Shani Tate Ross, vice president of marketing and communications at Kansas City's Sprint Center.
Wait, more alcohol to cure alcohol abuse? The idea of putting out fire with gasoline has taken hold more frequently for conferences and their members. The known is that fans are going to drink. Schools and conferences are deciding to control that intake at the same time adding to the game experience -- by serving drinks.
Here's how it works here: The Sprint Center is across the street from the highly popular Power & Light District, a restaurant and bar area. Fans have found they can chug ‘em up until the last minute, cross the street and quickly be in their seats.
The problem is there are too many fans with the same groupthink, creating a bottleneck at the arena's front entrance.
“All you have to do is look at the crowd five minutes before tipoffs,” West Virginia AD Oliver Luck said. “The stadium looks half empty. Two minutes into the game it fills up.”
The pressure release on that perceived binge drinking, then, is to make alcohol more readily available in a controlled environment. I asked Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby about that analogy -- putting out fire with gasoline.
“You could make that argument,” he said.
Court stormings are almost non-existent this time of year. But the issue goes beyond conference tournaments and March Madness. Conferences, schools and commissioners are in competition for that entertainment dollar. That competition means the “amenities” must match professional sports experience -- and in this case the joints across the street.
“I'm a big believer,” said Luck who advanced a unique alcohol policy at Mountaineer Field, “in allowing adults to have a choice.”
Alcohol is now available at 17 percent, (at least 21 overall) of the 125 FBS football venues according to an informal sampling by CBSSports.com. That's up if only you consider there are more teams in FBS. Alcohol can be had at Gillette Stadium, home of the Patriots and UMass, beginning its third year in FBS. The same goes for the Alamodome, home of Texas-San Antonio.
But who knew that five of the 13 MAC schools serve beer at football games? Or that in the venerable Big Ten, Minnesota also serves alcohol at TCF Bank Stadium?
“We want to make this an enjoyable experience,” said Chris Werle, Minnesota senior associate athletic director for strategic communications.
“I think every athletic department struggles with it one way or the other. But you don't want them to be reckless.”
Forget court storming, what about the message being sent on college campuses?
“We've had conversations with our ADs about the Marcus Smart incident and where the responsibility lies,” Bowlsby said. “It's not solely Marcus Smart. The fan had a role in it.”
What to do about those fans -- when they decided to take over the premises -- remains a mystery. The SEC assesses a fine to schools for court/field storming. ($5,000 for first offense, $25,000 for second, $50,000 for third). In the case of Auburn, it's a fine the school was glad to pay for perhaps the biggest day in its football history.
South Carolina president Harris Pastides was among those celebrating with students when the Gamecocks beat Kentucky in basketball earlier this month.
"Once I realized I was paying [the fine] anyway, I ran down ...,” Pastides was quoted as saying. “I enjoyed every dollar."
Fine example, not much different than the one set by Ohio State ushers a few years ago. They were helping fans out of the stands after a football win over Michigan.
This week here alcohol sales will be cut off with 12 minutes to go in the last game of the day at the Sprint Center. The venue has a designated driver program. That mirrors similar limits across pro and college sports.
“You can make a case that it's much more controlled ...,” Bowlsby added. “I don't see us beginning to sell margaritas at cross country championships.”
However, the Big 12 did sell exactly that last week -- sell margaritas -- at the women's basketball championship in Oklahoma City. The women played at the city-owned Chesapeake Energy Center, home of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Texas started a pilot program selling beer at softball, baseball and basketball. Alcohol will not be sold at the spring football game. A decision to proceed -- possibly to football sales in the fall -- will be made at the end of spring sports.
Texas is among four schools in the UT system currently serving alcohol at various events. At least seven Division I schools in the state make alcohol available to the public.
“We talk about it constantly,” outgoing AD DeLoss Dodds told the Daily Texan. "There's something about it that doesn't quite feel right, but there's people telling me that it might be safer to serve it than not serve it.”
Luck spearheaded a move three years ago to begin selling beer on campus at Mountaineer Field. The rationale, strange as it sounds, made sense. Fans were actually drinking less because they couldn't leave at halftime, hit the tailgate, and get back in the stadium.
Security officials had a name for it, Code V -- Code Vomit, that point in the first and third quarters when fans would feel the effects of binge drinking at the tailgate.
“Fans were running out at halftime and chugging hard liquor,” Luck said. “The public safety people in Morgantown wanted us to change.”
Luck's plan has worked so well that a state senate judiciary committee recently approved wine sales at Mountaineer Field.
“We already have beer sales in place, adding wine to that list wasn't that difficult for me,” Senator Bob Beach told wvmetronews.com.
To some, there is no other choice. It's either enhance the fan experience or lose the fans. That Barcalounger looks more tempting when HD TV and household booze are involved.
Sure, revenue is a factor in a cash-strapped economy. But in the case of the Sprint/Big 12 alliance, the split will be negligible in the two-year pilot program. Minnesota makes about $200,000 per year, Werle said.
Minnesota officials noted there was no negligible change in student conduct or impact on nearby neighborhoods.
Several conference tournaments sell alcohol because -- like Sprint -- they are played in city-owned arenas. However, the Big 12 hasn't allowed alcohol since 2005 at old Kemper Arena.
The NCAA does not allow alcohol, or even alcohol advertising, inside its tournament venues.
“Every conference makes its own decision,” Tate Ross said. “What we find at our events is our fans are of an advanced age.”
That's another way of saying the key demographic at these conference tournaments skews older -- a group that, in theory, can handle its booze better. Sprint is among the biggest indoor venues in the country without a pro tenant. But it has plenty of experience serving alcohol to fans hosting concerts, NHL and NBA exhibition games as well as the in-season College Basketball Experience hoops tournament.
“Places where the courts are being stormed are on campus are mostly students,” Bowlsby said. “They're typically not selling alcohol there.”
That was the case Saturday night at Viejas Arena. San Diego State added extra security anticipating a possible court storming. New Mexico players were able to get off the court safely while students merrily celebrated a Mountain West title.
Fifteen-hundred miles to the east this week, Bowlsby is considering fan conduct as a whole.
“I don't think there's any question decorum has been diminished, standards have been going downward,” he said. “We're there to manage the conduct of the event.”