Helium shortage pops Nebraska football’s red balloons tradition


The University of Nebraska is ending its tradition of fans releasing red balloons at football games, citing a global helium shortage amid rampant inflation.

Athletic director Trev Alberts announced on his monthly radio show that the university will no longer provide the balloons for fans to release after the first Cornhuskers touchdown at home football games, KMTV Omaha reported Monday. The tradition dates back to the 1960s.

“As we looked into it as an athletic department, it became pretty clear that there’s a very limited supply of helium and [it] was going to be hard to get,” Mr. Alberts said. “So we made the decision to end that tradition this year.”

The former Nebraska linebacker said the university is “working really hard on some alternatives” in time for its Sept. 3 home opener against North Dakota in Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium.

According to Mr. Alberts, administrators told the athletic department that the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha needs the helium for medical purposes.

Economists said Wednesday that the helium shortage has arisen from production bottlenecks in the U.S. and global supply chain problems that have delayed imports.

“The most immediate cause of the shortage is a shutdown of the Cliffside helium facility in Texas,” said Victor Claar, an economist who teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University. “The facility is operated by the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management and has been closed since January due to a leak. The leak adds insult to injury since the facility was closed for four months last year.”

Sam Kain, a finance professor at Walsh College in Michigan, said prices have also risen in recent years because Pennsylvania-based Air Products has acquired a monopoly on the nation’s helium reserve.

In 2013, Congress voted to start auctioning off a portion of the reserve each year to the highest bidder, with Air Products buying up a lot of it.

“Virtually granting monopoly to one company always results in market distortions,” Mr. Kain said. “Discouraging competition will result in those same distortions. Monopolistic producers will lower production to increase prices.”

Air Products did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Helium is one of several natural energy byproducts that have risen in price and decreased in availability amid pandemic-era inflation. Rising oil prices have led in recent months to price increases for plastics, resin, gasoline and diesel fuel.

Economists say the price and availability of products like helium balloons will not level off until Americans buy less of them.

“The question is when will consumers respond to the higher prices and reduce their demand. Until then, prices will likely keep rising,” said Christine McDaniel, a former assistant deputy secretary of the Treasury.

Ryan Young, a senior fellow at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, said Americans may be surprised to see what else they can no longer afford this year.

“Inflation is like water: It gets everywhere,” Mr. Young said.

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