From the time of the first drop of the puck 16 years ago, UNO hockey fans have been able to enjoy a cold beer, or two or three, while watching their Mavericks battle on the ice.
And plans call for beer to continue to be on tap in the future, even when the team starts playing its games on campus in the school's proposed $76 million arena.
It's believed the sale of beer at an on-campus sports facility would be a first for a public university in Nebraska. Alcohol has never been sold, for example, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Memorial Stadium football games or at the Devaney Center, home of NU basketball.
University of Nebraska at Omaha officials say they have no doubt alcohol can be sold and controlled in a responsible manner on campus, much as it has been in the city-owned arenas that have served as the Mavericks' home up to now.
“(Beer) is a part of hockey,” UNO Chancellor John Christensen said in a recent interview.
More than that, Christensen and other UNO officials say, beer is wrapped up in plans for financing the new arena. Concession sales, including beer, are a significant part of the projected revenue stream that gives them confidence the arena near 67th Street and West Center Road will be financially viable.
However, critics say given the problem of binge drinking on college campuses in Nebraska and across the nation, UNO would set a bad example by selling alcohol at on-campus athletic events.
“We really feel alcoholic drinks have no place in that family-friendly and youth-focused environment,” said Nicole Carritt of Project Extra Mile, an Omaha organization dedicated to stopping under-age drinking. “UNO has a chance to take a stand in terms of the health, safety and well-being of young adults.”
UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts said he doesn't think too much should be made of what is largely a structural change. The reality, he said, is beer has been sold at UNO games and would simply continue. “The precedent of alcohol being served at UNO sporting events has already been set,” he said.
It will ultimately be up to the NU Board of Regents, the Omaha City Council and the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to decide whether the proposed arena would be licensed for alcohol sales, an issue that likely won't come before those bodies for some time. The arena, still in the planning and fundraising stage, is not expected to open until the fall of 2015.
Colleges and universities have long wrestled with issues related to alcohol and athletics: whether to allow beer advertising in stadiums and arenas; whether to allow tailgating fans to bring alcohol on campus; and, increasingly, whether to sell the product directly.
This fall, the University of Minnesota joined at least 21 other schools playing major college football that sell beer at games, and the 12th to do so in an on-campus stadium. The Minnesota Legislature changed state law to allow for the sales.
Many more schools, including the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, sell alcohol in their stadiums only to fans in the big-dollar private suites — a policy that's been criticized as elitist.
UNL does not sell alcohol at Memorial Stadium, and in recent years then-Athletic Director Tom Osborne cracked down on private suite-holders sneaking in alcohol. But it's also well-known that alcohol flows freely on game days at downtown Lincoln bars, tailgate parties and an alumni club just outside the stadium.
Creighton University, a co-tenant with UNO hockey at the CenturyLink Center Omaha, has long had beer sales at its basketball games. This past season, beer was also sold at UNO basketball games for the first time with the team's move from an on-campus field house into the new Ralston Arena. But NU basketball games in Lincoln will continue to be dry even as the Huskers move off campus this fall into a new city-owned arena.
As for college hockey, among the seven other schools in UNO's conference, at least three sell beer during games, including two that play in on-campus arenas.
Many hockey fans would tell you there has long been a particular link between their sport and beer.
In Canada, beer consumption and hockey are so closely tied that when the National Hockey League shut down because of a labor dispute last year, beer sales slumped nationally by 9 percent. Omaha hockey fans over several decades have grown accustomed to being able to buy beer at the games of the minor league Omaha Knights, the junior league Omaha Lancers and UNO's Mavericks.
“Beer at a hockey game is like a glass of wine at a fine dinner,” said Pat Lemmers, former president of the UNO hockey booster club.
Officials with UNO and CenturyLink and regular fans at Mav hockey games generally agree that alcohol sales have not posed big problems.
Bridget Weide Brooks of Omaha and her husband have never missed a UNO home hockey game — more than 300 and counting — and neither drinks. She said she could recall only a handful of incidents of unruly fan behavior that may have been influenced by alcohol.
“They've been pretty much isolated and not different from anything you would see at a Husker football game after people have been tailgating all day,” Brooks said. “I don't think it's a big issue either way.”
She said the cost of beer in the arena — $7 for a large draw — serves as a deterrent to over-imbibing during games, as does tight control by arena staff. CenturyLink officials require anyone wanting to buy beer to go to an ID station to get a wristband, sales are cut off at the start of the third period, and security is on hand to monitor fan behavior.
In addition, servers are urged to be aware of whether those they are serving are drinking responsibly, said Roger Dixon, CEO of the authority that runs CenturyLink.
“We want our guests to have a great time, but we also want to make sure it happens in a safe and responsible way,” he said.
UNO officials say that, in informal discussions, regents have indicated they'd have no problem with allowing beer sales at the new arena, as long as sales are policed the same way they've been at the city arenas.
Up to now, UNO has made no money on concessions at its games. Arenas have kept all that revenue, which has led to lower rents for the school. But UNO would for the first time receive most of the revenue from beer sales, after paying a portion of it to the concession vendor. And that revenue, UNO officials say, could prove significant to the arena's financial viability.
To make the annual bond payments and pay operating costs, UNO has estimated the arena would need to generate about $4 million in new revenues. UNO projects the facility will generate about $5 million, $1.2 million of that through concessions.
Alberts doesn't know what percentage of the $1.2 million comes from beer sales, but he said it “would be naive” to think beer is not a big part of it.
An even bigger concern for Alberts than losing that revenue would be what impact cutting off beer sales would have on the size of a fan base that's used to being able to buy beer.
“Fans have been conditioned over the last 16 years that (beer) is available at Creighton basketball and UNO hockey,” he said. “That is a reality.”
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