Can Selling Beer Cut Down on Public Drunkenness? A New Marketplace Podcast

West Virginia University students drink cans of beer while tailgating outside Milan Puskar Stadium on Sept 1, 2012. (Photo: Chelsi Baker, All-Pro Photography)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Can Selling Beer Cut Down on Public Drunkenness?” 

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

It features Oliver Luck, the athletic director at West Virginia University, whose Top 10-ranked football team opened the 2012 season by beating Marshall 69-34. Luck himself played quarterback at West Virginia from 1978 to 1981 and, after a four-year NFL career, got into sports administration. These days, he is best known as the father of Indianapolis Colts’ rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.

As the A.D. at West Virginia, here’s what Luck saw happening at home football games:

“People drinking far too much at pre-game parties and tailgate parties before games. Sneaking alcohol into games. Leaving at halftime or any point during the game to go back out to the tailgate to drink even more and come back into the game. … They would usually drink hard liquor — ‘get their buzz back on’ and come back into the game for the third quarter.  And the police again would know exactly at what point in the third quarter these ‘throw-up calls’ would start to come over the radio.”

Like most colleges, West Virginia didn’t sell alcohol inside the stadium; doing so would seem to collide with a university’s academic mission. But drinking still happened — often aided, as at West Virginia, by a “pass-out policy” that allows a ticketholder to leave the stadium, drink some more, and re-enter.

What to do?

The evidence suggests that college football and mayhem just seem to go together; and in 1996, the University of Colorado at Boulder, which did sell alcohol in the stadium, found a significant decrease in arrests and assaults after banning alcohol.

But Luck proposed a middle solution: start selling beer inside the stadium but kill the pass-out policy. The result? According to Luck, it’s been win-win: about $500,000 in alcohol sales and less alcohol-related trouble. Here are the WVU police numbers from 2011, when the policy changed, and 2010:

 

Bob Roberts, chief of the West Virginia University Police, told us that he was expecting trouble to rise, not fall, with beer sales in the stadium. So he was pleasantly surprised — and likes the new policy. “You know, you might as well face reality and try to control it. And at least keep the environment as safe as you can. That was always my goal — to try and make the environment safe.” 

Luck has since consulted with other schools looking to make a similar change. In July 2012, the University of Minnesota regents approved alcohol sales at the Golden Gophers’ stadium; former state legislator Laura Brod was one of the regents who voted for the beer sales:

“I think we close our eyes a little bit to a tailgate culture that is out there. And what we’ve said is, ‘we’re going to encourage that tailgate culture, but that stops at the door.’ And I think that’s a little bit … odd.”

Audio Transcript

Kai RYSSDAL: Time now for the little Freakonomics Radio.  It’s that moment every couple of weeks we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and blog of the same name.  It is “the hidden side of everything.”  Dubner, how are ya?

Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey Kai. I’m good.  How are you?

I’m alright.  Getting by.

DUBNER: So the new college football season is upon us now.  It’s always exciting -- the unbelievable, sheer athleticism, the marching bands and the freshmen barfing all over the stadium.

RYSSDAL: OK, wait.  What?  That’s not what I was expecting.

DUBNER: Yeah, that’s what I want to talk to you about today.  Let me start with Oliver Luck.  He is the athletic director at West Virginia University.  That’s what he got used to seeing at football games there.

"People drinking far too much at pre-game parties and tailgate parties before games. Sneaking alcohol into games. Leaving at halftime to drink even more and come back into the game.”

DUBNER: Now, Oliver Luck happens to be the father of quarterback Andrew Luck, who is this year’s No. 1 NFL draft pick – new QB for the Indianapolis Colts.  Oliver Luck was an NFL quarterback himself for a few years.  And now, as a college athletic director, he learned that most colleges, in keeping with their academic mission, do not sell alcohol at football games. But, not surprisingly, that doesn’t stop everybody, including students from drinking. Especially because some schools, West Virginia among them, had what’s called a “pass-out” policy.

RYSSDAL: A what?

DUBNER: Yes, you heard me right, but you’re thinking differently.  This does not have anything to do with passing out from drinking too much.  It has to do with the fact that you are allowed to pass out of the stadium and back in during the game – which means you can go out and drink.

RYSSDAL: This whole thing is not shocking, right?  That’s the point?

DUBNER: It is not.  But that doesn’t mean you have to be happy about it or even tolerate it. So last year Oliver Luck proposed two things: one, that West Virginia get rid of that “pass-out” policy and that it try something different inside the stadium.

LUCK: "So I began to think a little bit counterintuitively that actually selling beer at our stadium would actually help us gain control.”

RYSSDAL: So here’s where I need you to explain the counterintuitive thing: You get some money from the beer sales, but how does it help you control the problem if you’re actually selling the beverage?

DUBNER: Let’s do the money first.  West Virginia did clear about $500,000 from beer sales that first year.  They project it will probably double this year – that’s nice.  But, you’re right, now that you’re selling beer in the stadium, you might think you’re going to have more alcohol trouble – more arrests for underage drinking, more violence. That’s what the campus police at West Virginia last year, in the first year were prepared for. But that is not what happened here. Here’s police chief Bob Roberts:


Bob ROBERTS: "In 2010, we made 117 arrests on game days. In this past year, we only made 79. See, that’s almost a 35 percent reduction in arrests we made.”

KAI: Which is good.  So is Luck trying to sell this to other schools?  Get them to try it?

DUBNER: I wouldn’t say he’s an evangelist, quite.  But when they see what’s happening there and they come for help, he gives it.  The University of Minnesota wanted to try selling beer in the stadium.  It had to get, however, support from the state legislature first and Luck did talk to some legislative aides along the way.  Now, as a result, this fall Minnesota will be starting a two-year trial of beer sales.

RYSSDAL: Which totally makes sense, right?  You can drink fifty feet outside the stadium gates, but you can’t inside.  I mean, come on.

DUBNER: Look, this is complicated and you don’t want to make light of it.  Alcohol abuse is a very major problem on college campuses and elsewhere. And the idea of making more alcohol available in more places may strike some people as ridiculous. But what I like about this approach is that, when you’ve got a problem, you can stick your head in the sand or you can acknowledge the problem exists and try to come up with a new kind of solution.  That, I think, is what we’re talking about here -- listen, again, to West Virginia University police chief Bob Roberts:

ROBERTS: "You know, you might as well face reality and try to control it and at least keep the environment as safe as you can."

DUBNER: How’s that for a motto, Kai?  “Controlling reality” one day at a time.  I like that.

RYSSDAL: Stephen Dubner, he tries to do that every day of his life.  Freakonomics.com is the web site.  He is back in a couple of weeks. See ya, man.

DUBNER: Thanks so much, Kai.

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  1. Seminymous Coward says:

    I don’t follow how “sell[ing] alcohol inside the stadium … would seem to collide with a university’s academic mission.” The sale and reasonable consumption of alcohol seem quite orthogonal to academic studies to me. Certainly it’s not any more odd than having sports at a college (which also has my wholehearted support). Furthermore, it’s my understanding that other countries’ universities, including the famous world-tier ones, frequently have school-owned on-campus bars.

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    • Ryan says:

      At worst orthogonal, but I think it could make an acute angle with the University’s goals. Many of our society’s views concerning alcohol are unreasoned and hypocritical. Anytime a student can be encouraged to question those views its a positive.

      It’s tragic that so much policy is made on the basis of misguided moralism rather than on pragmatism, evidence and its efficacy.

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    • Logan W. says:

      WVU does have a University-owned, on-campus bar in the basement of the student union. It’s called the Side Pocket Pub.

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  2. David Van Riper says:

    The U of Minnesota actually approved beer sales in July 2012, not July 2011. The first game with beer gardens is this Saturday vs. New Hampshire.

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  3. Doug says:

    Isn’t the selling of alcohol a red herring? Isn’t it simply cutting off the ability to leave & return the true reason for a cut down of incidents? Preventing people from leaving at half time to get drunk in a hurry (hard alcohol) the real reason for a decrease in incidents?

    Not to mention: how many college students are going to be able to afford the inflated price (I assume) of beer in the stadium?

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    • Peggy says:

      True, but what it did was keep those people who would no longer have come to the games, because of no “pass outs”, coming and drinking less. That’s why Oliver Luck is so smart. Added revenue, decreased drinking and drinking related incidents while convincing people they were getting a bonus (beer sales) rather than something taken away.

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    • Rhett says:

      You ask how many students can afford the beer. Since most of the undergraduate population is under 21, the question seems a bit off since the vendors will most likely be scrutinizing IDs there. With that in mind, I don’t think the selling of alcohol is a red herring after all – you give alumni, graduate students, and drinking age undergraduates a chance to drink and if they’re behaving badly, it’s in full view of everyone in the surrounding seats. So there’s some social pressure to drink a little more responsibly.

      On the other hand, I think you’re somewhat right and that 80% of the reduction of incidents is due to the elimination of the not-so-aptly named “pass-out policy.” It’ll be interesting to see what happens at Minnesota and other schools that adapt their policies to see what the trends will be.

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    • John says:

      If you cut off the ability to leave & return, many people would simply drink more before entering to ensure a good buzz all game long. That would seems to be the worst scenario of all.

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  4. BCrisp says:

    Interesting article, but the WVU study does have one flaw. They changed two variables and measured the results. We can’t tell which change contributed to the decrease in arrests. For anyone interested in doing more studies on this subject, Texas A&M university is changing conference to the SEC this year. The SEC has a no pass-out policy, A&M has not had a similar policy before. Studying Texas A&M, and Missouri from 2011 to 2012 would only show the change for the variable of starting a pass-out policy. Although, I will freely admit that changing conference is another variable.

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  5. Geoff Smith says:

    “You know, you might as well face reality and try to control it. And at least keep the environment as safe as you can. That was always my goal — to try and make the environment safe.”

    So… are they going to apply that same logic to drug laws, then?

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    • MattC says:

      In Morgantown, yeah… It’s a reality there are drugs in a college town. Accept it and attempt to control it but why allocate all your resources to kids smoking a little weed when there are deadly drugs passing through? I’ve had fair experiences with Morgantown Police.

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  6. RGJ says:

    Having attended the Giants-Cowboys game last night and enjoyed two $12 Becks, I will comment. :-)

    I think the policy the Giants have landed on, after much back and forth, is when you STOP sales. In the past, at evening games, it was the beginning of the third quarter. Last night it was the beginning of halftime (I’m told, you would think the end would make sense, sales-wise).

    That, to me, is the most effective variable. If a drinker knows he can have one or two more inside, there may be less of the binge at the gate stuff.

    Also, a factor has been how early the gates to the statement open for tailgating. In the old days, you would have Eagles fans at Giants Stadium tailgating at noon for a 9 pm Monday Night game. They were passing out and rallying and passing out and rallying for cycles, they had so long to drink. Now the gates only open three or five hours or whatever before kickoff.

    The best change to me at Giants Stadium (I won’t call it Metlife) is they are much more serious about fan behavior. A few years ago, I had a very foul-mouthed guy two rows behind me, game after game (season tix). I was bringing my young daughters….I asked the guy nicely….I’m not talking the occasional f-bomb, it was unrelenting homophobic and scatological stuff.

    I called the Giants security guys during the week and just said could someone talk to him. They said “No, we’ll handle it.” They had an undercover guy sit up above him. After catching about 60 seconds of his act, he was escorted out by four yellow security guys, never saw him again. Pulled his season tix, which can take 50 years to get.

    Now they have it so you can text a section, seat and row during the game and they come eyeball them.

    In terms of drinking, the atmosphere of behavior is just as important, I think.

    Also, what I think would perhaps help would be to have the security guys who have to pat you down and have you turn your cellphone on to at least eyeball you to see if you are falling down drunk and belligerent. I watched them let some glassy-eyed guys in last night who barely could walk and were chanting obscentities, etc.

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    • caleb b says:

      $12 beers would keep me from drinking for sure.

      I’d love to hear how stadiums deal with beer sales. On one hand, they have HUGE margins. On the other, the price is SO high at some stadiums that they practically discourage drinking all together. So what is the ideal for the stadium manager? Maybe that every eligible fan consumes 2-3 beers and then stops.

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      • John says:

        This is kind of like a Laffer Curve problem — at what price point can the franchise maximize both profits and orderliness. Two high and you discourage drinking entirely, too low and you end up with a stadium full of drunks.

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  7. Michael says:

    Perhaps people aim for an average level of drunkeness over the game. So the fewer opportunities or further distance to drink, the lower frequency of drinking but higher alcohol consumption per drink, so start drunker and sober up.

    Selling alcohol in stadium reduces the distance to alcohol, so more visits are made, less consumed per visit and drinkers are closer to their target level, rather than fluctuating and often too drunk and rowdy.

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    • RGJ says:

      At $12 a Becks I think they have to consider it. Two per customer, and they ID *everybody* (I’m 50).

      But they have things like $8.50 a foot long hot dog and $14 Carnegie Deli sandwicjhes, so everything is off the economic grid, not just beer. And, by the way, they sell wine and mixed drinks as well.

      One very noticeable difference is the behavior difference between Giants and Jets fans at the same time. Giants fans skew older and have had their seats for decades. Jets fans seem more like a college crowd.

      The bottom line to all of this to me is enforcing security. The Giants had multiple player videos on the big screen about respectful behavior, drunkenness and profanity, and text signs where you can report behavior.

      It makes a difference.

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  8. Griff says:

    Scotland, UK is working on bringing in minimum alcohol pricing….

    One reason is, given the cost of it in bars etc people have been increasingly tanking up on bargain rate supermarket booze before going out for the evening.

    I suspect that this enterprise amy go the same way if/when cost of inside beer goes up.

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