Does selling beer at college games decrease binge drinking?

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A vendor pours beer at Lincoln Financial Field before Temple played East Carolina on Nov. 26, 2016 in Philadelphia.

To help colleges tackle a binge-drinking epidemic linked to 1,825 student deaths and 97,000 sexual assaults annually, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recently devised a set of remedies.

Prominent among them was one that not long ago was standard policy - a ban on alcohol sales at sporting events.

For a variety of reasons - cultural, practical, and especially financial - that recommendation has largely been ignored. As a result, a longtime taboo against alcohol is rapidly disappearing from college sports.

During the soon-to-be-completed 2016 football season, more than three dozen Division I schools, including Temple, peddled beer and sometimes wine at football games often populated by thousands of underage students. In 2007, just six colleges did that.

And despite research that found college students drink more at football games, many more colleges and universities may soon jump on the alcohol bandwagon.

College Football Stadiums Where Alcohol Is Sold

More than three dozen colleges now sell alcohol at their games. In 2007, just six colleges did.

SOURCES: USA Today; Inquirer reporting
AMY JUNOD / Staff Artist

"That's exactly the wrong direction to be moving in," said George Dowdall, a St. Joseph's University sociology professor who has researched binge drinking. "The links between binge drinking and sporting events are complex, but they're definitely there."

Alcohol is a lure

Football and drinking have a long history, one typically limited to tailgate lots. Though an NCAA alcohol ban applied only to its championships, most colleges for decades adhered to a de facto prohibition.

But with the rise of luxury boxes and premium seating, alcohol was offered in those areas as a lure for big donors.

Gradually, schools such as Temple and Miami that played in municipal stadiums began to permit the stadium-wide sale of beer. But until recently, except for premium-seat holders, it wasn't available in campus stadiums.

That started to change in 2011, when West Virginia, seeking a solution to excessive drinking in Mountaineer Field's tailgating lots, decided to sell beer inside.

It was soon followed by Tulane, Minnesota, Syracuse Cincinnati, Louisville, and several other schools. This season, Pitt, Maryland, and Tulsa joined the group as did two of college football's flagship programs, Texas and Ohio State.

Elsewhere, Penn State is about to end its longtime ban. Perhaps as early as next season, alcohol will be served and sold in Beaver Stadium's club seats and luxury suites. Officials said there were no plans to sell it in general-seating areas.

"We're trying to provide our fans with as much value for their investment as we can," explained Phil Esten, Penn State's deputy director of athletics.

The addition of top-tier football programs indicates the broadening of a trend that began primarily with mid-level schools seeking new revenue.

Anchored in the Bible Belt, Southeastern Conference members weren't permitted to sell alcohol. But even that prohibition is fraying, with Florida now serving beer and wine in luxury-seating areas and LSU proposing a beer garden adjacent to its stadium.

With the regular-season taboo shattered, the NCAA's championship ban may soon follow.

In an experiment last May, beer was sold for the first time since 1963 at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., and at the Softball Championships in Oklahoma City.

"By all accounts, the experiences were positive, and we'll be adding a couple of additional championships this year," said Oliver Luck, the NCAA's executive vice president of regulatory affairs.

The experiments were widely seen as test runs for the ultimate breakthrough, allowing alcohol at the NCAA's signature event, March Madness. Should that prohibition disappear, hundreds of millions of dollars in alcohol company sponsorships could flow into NCAA coffers.

Is it hypocritical?

The factors driving this sudden turnaround are varied. There's money to be made, of course. Beer sales also help attract fans who otherwise might be content to watch at home on TV. And there's a belief that controlled stadium sales may ameliorate excessive drinking at tailgates.

West Virginia, for example, has reported a 30 percent decrease in alcohol-related offenses since it started selling beer.

"Police will tell you that hasn't eliminated binge drinking, but it has cut down on it," Luck added.

Toben Nelson, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health who has studied the connections between alcohol and sports, said no one can yet make a connection between beer sales and better behavior.

"Our game-day police regularly round up people who are intoxicated," said Nelson. "How much that's influenced by selling in the stadium is hard to say. They'd argue their sales aren't the source of the problem. But I'd argue that it's contributed to a normalizing of alcohol. When everybody is drinking a little, the extremes get more extreme."

In 1996, Colorado banned all drinking at its games. School officials said a 2010 study revealed a sharp decrease in most forms of bad behavior.

Most colleges with stadium sales have policies similar to WVU's: only beer; only two at a time; and only until midway through the third quarter.

That's how Temple, whose officials did not want to be interviewed for this article, does it at Lincoln Financial Field. Villanova sells no beer at football games but does during home basketball games at the Wells Fargo Center.

Tailgating excesses were behind West Virginia's 2011 decision.

"When I got there as athletic director in 2010, one of the things I heard most frequently was that we had a real problem with tailgating," said Luck. "You could leave at halftime, go out to your tailgate, chug a bottle of vodka, and come back in.

"Now they're finding that by selling beer in a controlled environment and not allowing people to come in and out, it's cutting down on those incidents."

The change raised a lot of what Luck termed "principled opposition" from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and from those who found it hypocritical for a school plagued by binge-drinking woes to sell alcohol at sporting events.

"The logic that allowing alcohol sales inside stadiums will decrease game-day drinking is dubious at best," said Aaron White, the NIAAA's senior scientific adviser.

But Luck said campus and Morgantown police unabashedly supported stadium sales "because it allowed better control."

"It's a little bit of a contrarian approach," he said, "but at the end of day, it's worked."

Tailgating survives

Tailgating appears to be surviving this revolution, in part, experts said, because of its popularity with alumni donors. All the schools that now permit beer sales still allow tailgating, though some, such as Minnesota, have stopped such rituals as beer-keg parties and open-pit fires.

"Schools that don't allow drinking in venues but still allow tailgating are sending a mixed message," said White. "They're saying, 'We're trying to dissuade people from excessive drinking, but come hang in the parking lot and drink before an event.

"They're kind of stuck in the middle. If they allow tailgating, they still get a lot of alcohol-related harm but don't get any money. And there's money to be made."

Texas and Ohio State reported more than $1 million in beer revenue their first year. Luck estimated West Virginia makes $750,000 annually.

"We also found it increased food sales as well," Luck said.

But that money isn't all profit.

Despite revenue that topped $1 million, Minnesota lost money in 2012, the first year beer and wine were sold at TCF Bank Stadium.

UM used that money to hire 11 additional law enforcement officers, bringing its game-day total to 112; to provide mandatory alcohol educational programs for employees and students; and, per school policy, to administer breath tests at the stadium to any student guilty of an earlier alcohol-related offense.

"For us, the change wasn't about making money," said Tom McGinnis, Minnesota's senior associate athletic director. "It was about safety concerns and wanting to provide amenities to help us compete with other entertainment options in the Twin Cities."

According to Forbes magazine, there is big money to be made in beer sales, but it likely will come from alcohol sponsorships and by opening up collegiate venues to concerts and professional sports.

Penn State sold alcohol at a preseason NHL game at its Pegula Arena and will do so again during a Blake Shelton concert at Beaver Stadium in July.

"Without the ability to serve alcohol," said Esten, "we couldn't draw those events."

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

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