What do you do when you’re caught in the non-alcoholic beer section of a sports venue?
If you’re Chicago Bears fan Matthiew Balsley, you improvise.
A season ticket holder for more than 15 years, Matthiew has developed a patented procedure for ensuring that having tickets in one of Soldier Field’s two non-alcoholic sections does not disrupt his ability to enjoy beer while cheering the Bears.
And yet, until recently, a sports fan in a non-alcoholic section of a stadium might not be missing much. That’s because for a long time, the beer selection at ballparks was typically limited, with the beers themselves falling into the woebegone quadrant of “high price” / “low taste.”
Sports venues of all kinds are filling out their beer selection, turning a trip to the stadium beer line into something more than a choice between The Main Beer and The Lite Beer. Fans can now drink at games simply for the love of brew.
Here in Chicago, the expansion over the past decade has been dramatic, with a range of craft beers now offered at the United Center, Wrigley Field, and Sox Park (aka New Comiskey, aka The Cell, aka Guaranteed Rate Field, aka The Rate).
Which brings us back to Matthiew and Soldier Field.
While Bears fans can enjoy a diversified selection of beers including the Pinball Pale Ale, Dos Equis, Disco Lemonade IPA, Blue Moon Belgian White, and the sweet milk stout from Tallgrass Brewing Company, fans in sections 148 (Matthiew’s section) and 155 cannot drink at their seats. This isn’t a rule to mess with – while fans in this section can drink on the concourse, violating the no-alcohol rule results in the revocation of your seats on the first offense.
Therefore, Matthiew has developed a system that allows him to drink his beer in peace throughout the game while still adhering to the rules. He does so with three steps.
October now presents Matthiew’s pro tips for drinking beer at an NFL game without missing any action – and without violating the non-alcoholic section rule.
Soldier Field is famous for its parking lot tailgating. Fans bring grills and coolers, practically creating mini-restaurants before entering the park. For a noon game, Matthiew’s group arrives at 6 a.m. and stays until 10:30 or 11. During that time, he can space out seven to nine beers.
This season, seven of the team’s eight home games will start at noon.
“For me, the pregame is essential – you walk in with a solid one tied on,” Matthiew tells me. “It's cheaper to drink before games, rather than spending nine to ten dollars on a beer.”
That’s no joke: according to Statista, Soldier Field was the fourth most expensive NFL stadium to buy beers during the 2016 season, at an average of $9.25 per beer. That’s about two dollars above the league average.
2. Make friends with a vendor
To get from his seats to the nearest beer stand, Matthiew must walk up 19 rows. That’s a lot of time spent away from the seats, especially if other fans are going at the same time (more on this in a moment).
Therefore, early in the season, he leaves the parking lot tailgating on the early side to head to his seats and meet the vendors.
“I get familiar with them when it's not busy before the game,” he says.
And because vendors tend to work the same areas of the stadium for each game, “the vendor will eventually remember you,” Matthiew says. “He’ll be asking if you need one every trip you make.”
3. Learn the rhythms of TV timeouts
Matthiew’s last pro tip is one that took a while to coordinate.
There are two kinds of breaks in the action at a professional football game. The first are ones tied to the action – timeouts called by teams, and injury timeouts. In other words, while the play on the field has stopped, the game is essentially proceeding.
Never go at halftime or after. Better early than late.”
The second kind are breaks that temporarily suspend the action, at least from a fan perspective. The most obvious kind is halftime, when practically the entire fanbase leaves the seating for the bathrooms and concessions. But for beer drinkers in the non-alcoholic section, the best times to take action are the TV timeouts.
Matthiew has been refining his approach for more than 15 years. Today, his strategy for using TV timeouts to facilitate beer runs is as calculated – and runs as smoothly – as the Ocean’s Eleven operation to invade and rob the Bellagio.
Matthiew’s seats are 11 rows off the field above the North end zone. From that vantage point, he has a clear view of the man on the sideline who signals the TV timeouts via his arm-length, high-visibility gloves.
“The minute he holds his arm up, a timeout is imminent,” Matthiew explains. “If I'm timing my trip, I wait for the arm to go up. When it does, I excuse myself. You get your beer and drink either as fast as you can, or you strategically stand on the concourse where you can see and finish your beer and wait for a break in action to make your move.”
Matthiew follows this rule as strictly as he does the no-booze-in-section-148 policy.
“Never go at halftime or after,” he advises. “Better early than late, so I go before the 2-minute warning. I’ve had friends miss the whole 3rd quarter waiting in a concession line,” which at Soldier Field, he notes, can easily be a 15-minute wait.
“I avoid that at all cost,” he says.
As for beer choice, the south side of the stadium where he sits has a few local favorites. Matthiew’s preferred beer at Soldier Field is a Lagunitas, followed by Coors, Miller, or a Summer Shandy by Leinenkugel’s. He typically drinks between two and four beers during the game, “depending on the mood in the stadium.”
So there you have it! When it comes to beers at sporting events, it’s a whole new ballgame.
Especially if you're in the non-alcoholic sections.