PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- During March Madness, the National Collegiate Athletic Association reminds its men's basketball audience frequently that it absolutely abhors alcohol ... on paper.
The short-form version of its alcohol policy is stacked with reminders that the governing body "has, for many years, banned sale of alcohol at NCAA championships" and has recommended that all member institutions "Prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages during all preseason, regular season, conference and postseason intercollegiate athletic events" and "Prohibit on-site alcohol advertising during all preseason, regular season, conference and postseason intercollegiate events."
Neutral sites are another story. As are the various positions of NCAA universities and athletic conferences. As a result, alcohol sales -- and beer sales specifically -- are intrinsically tied to college sports and, especially, March Madness.
It's up to the host venues themselves to determine whether to serve alcohol, which is how the Sprint Center in Kansas City brought beer to the Big 12 Conference tournament for the first time in nine years. Even if alcohol sales are prohibited in the main seating area, they're typically A-OK for the folks spending the big bucks on suites.
The beer taps at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, will be flowing during the Final Four. Even if beer signs are covered inside the stadium itself, the NCAA will allow broadcast partner CBS (and March Madness partner Turner) to air 60 seconds worth of beer ads per hour, since the NCAA's television ad policy allows for ads featuring products of 6% alcohol by volume or less. While it bars those ads from the championship game itself, they're free to run before tipoff and after the final buzzer.
The beer companies will be more than happy to contribute, too. In 2013, Anheuser-Busch Inbev was the third-largest March Madness ad buyer, with $38.9 million in ads purchased. Despite not being included as an official tournament sponsor because of the NCAA's alcohol stipulations, A-B trailed only official sponsors AT&T and General Motors in overall spending and spent more than NCAA partners Coca-Cola, CapitalOne, Lowe's and Nissan. This year, because March Madness is basically on par with the Super Bowl in advertising dollars, Anheuser-Busch InBev is expanding its Bud Light Hotel beyond football's big game to a Big Dance installment at Aloft Dallas.
With help from St. Patrick's Day, March Madness gives a big bump to March beer sales during beer's winter and early spring low season. According to production figures from the Treasury Department Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade bureau, American beer consumption drops around Labor Day and doesn't really pick up again until folks start buying their Memorial Day 30-packs in May. While production usually settles in at 14 million to 15 million barrels between December and February, March production jumps to around 17 million to 18 million barrels before settling back again in April.
There are plenty of folks who aren't so supportive of the NCAA's role in that March beer sales spike. The Partnership at Drugfree.org and The Center For Science In The Public Interest note that not is the NCAA's beer ad policy among the most lax in all of sports, but that those ads only make it more difficult to curb underage drinking on campus. The Partnership even enlisted the help of college presidents and athletic directors to make that point back in 2008. The NCAA and other university partners just nodded politely and signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion broadcast agreement with CBS and Turner in 2010. The huge price of that agreement came thanks, in part, to potential ad revenue from beer companies.
The NCAA's alcohol ad policy means well and has its heart in the right place, but doesn't have a whole lot of weight behind it. When Syracuse University fans can buy beer at the on-campus Carrier Dome, Providence fans at the Dunkin Donuts Center have plenty of access to a cup of 'Gansett and the Flordia-Georgia game is still labeled "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party," an inconsistently applied policy that does little besides cover up naughty beer logos inside arenas is more than an insurance card.
Beer is only as big a portion of March Madness as the NCAA allows it to be. Around this time of year, its presence is as big as the event itself.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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