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