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NASHVILLE — Count the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga among state universities interested in a bill now moving through the state legislature that's aimed at allowing alcohol sales at public college sports venues including UTC's 12,000-seat McKenzie Arena.

Bill sponsors are mostly talking allowing sales of alcoholic beverages for non-athletic events, such as concerts at UT in Knoxville's Boling-Thompson Arena and Neyland Stadium as their main goal.

Even if the bill passes, the Knoxville campus still won't be able to sell alcohol at Vols football games at Neyland and basketball games at Boling-Thompson. That's because the SEC is one of the college sports conference holdouts when it comes to allowing alcohol sales to the general public at its games.

But the bill does designate any public higher education facility designed, sanctioned and used for sporting events as a "sports authority facility" for purposes of on-premises sales and consumption of alcoholic beverages, according to a legislative analysis.

In fact, The Tennessee Higher Education Commission reports there are about 50 such facilities in Tennessee that could meet the definition of a "sports authority facility" as it's currently listed in state law.

Richard Brown, UTC's executive vice chancellor for finance and administration, said in a statement Friday the university is interested in the possibility of selling alcohol at non-sports entertainment events.

"Absolutely," Brown said. "I think it makes McKenzie Arena more competitive and attractive to clients who come in and utilize the facility."

As to whether it would allow UTC to sell alcohol to the general public at its arena appears somewhat murky. A UTC spokesman was under the impression NCAA rules wouldn't allow that.

However, this year's bill is a follow-up to a 2018 law that allowed Middle Tennessee State University, which competes in Conference USA and is under the NCAA, to sell alcohol, which it now does in the form of beer and wine at its on-campus football and basketball games. The general public and students over the age of 21 can purchase drinks.

The law extended the same option to Tennessee State University, which competes in the Ohio Valley Conference.

"The bill levels the playing field for our public institutions," Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, told Senate State and Local Government Committee members last week when presenting the measure.

It "provides the same opportunity to our University of Tennessee. This bill is not a mandate and it does not require universities to sell alcohol, but it is permissive," Massey said.

In Knoxville's case, she said, the primary reason is "to encourage the recruitment of more special events to our college town. Currently, UT's athletic venues go largely unutilized by entertainment acts, basically the concerts, because they will typically only go where there is alcohol being sold."

Because of that, she said, Knoxville tourism officials estimate that there's more than a $2 million loss to the local economy.

"It provides colleges more latitude in selling alcohol at sporting events," Massey said. "But just to note, the SEC currently prohibits the sale of alcohol in general admission areas at athletic venues."

Some are hoping that will change.

Many colleges and universities currently allow alcohol sales in sectioned-off sky boxes or a special area where well-heeled attendees pay a stiff price for the privilege.

That's the case at UTC's McKenzie Arena, where members of the Mocs Club who pay $1,500 at a minimum to support the basketball team can get access for two to the arena's hospitality room, where alcohol is available.

Because the 20,668-seat Finley Stadium, where the Mocs football team plays, is owned by a nonprofit corporation, alcohol is sold for consumption by the general public on Finley's West Plaza, which overlooks the field and is across the street from the First Tennessee Pavilion.

It's not allowed in general public seating areas for UTC games. But alcohol is sold at Finley's Stadium Club and in the 20,668-seat facility's luxury suites.

Pointing to Finley during her committee presentation, Massey noted "we did pass a couple of years ago allowing one of the venues that is not on the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga campus to sell alcohol. But we're trying to standardize the state law statewide and level the playing field."

The Southern Conference to which UTC belongs has at least one member university that allows alcohol sales to the general public. According to multiple news accounts, that's The Citadel in Charleston.

McKenzie Arena, home to the men's and women's Mocs basketball teams, has hosted concerts including Taylor Swift, Vince Gill and Ludacris, as well as events including the Longhorn Championship Rodeo, Disney on Ice, WWE professional wrestling and Thunder National's Monster Trucks.

The ability to sell alcohol during at least some events could provide a new revenue source for the university.

Senate State and Local Government Committee members approved the bill with Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, voting yes.

The House Finance Subcommittee approved it on a voice vote.

"It's not a requirement that they have to" serve alcohol, sponsor Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, stressed to House Finance Subcommittee members prior to last week's vote, noting it is permissive in nature.

Moreover, Sexton noted, acting UT System President Randy Boyd is in support of the measure and favors letting campus chancellors decide whether or not to approve alcohol sales.

On Tuesday, the bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and it is also slated for the full House Finance Committee.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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