Can Selling Beer Cut Down on Public Drunkenness? (Ep. 91)

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 here.)

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.”

Seminymous Coward

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.


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.

David Van Riper

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.

Stephen J. Dubner

Fixed, thanks. sjd


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?


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.


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.

Geoff Smith

“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?


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.


caleb b

$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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


I'd be curious to know the percentage of incidents applicable to the student body and the age of students involved in incidents before and after the policy change. How many under age students (typically freshman, sophomores and first semester juniors) are drinking illegally (through either borrowed/fake licenses, or of-age students buying on their behalf) with the financial benefit going to the university? I speculate the incidents are down across the student body, but it would be interesting or worth considering other policies if the decrease in incidents for students under age wasn't statistically significant.


I have to agree with the comments about changing two variables and ascribing all of the effect to one. You should have caught that and made it clearer in the segment. also, I wonder, how do the do the ID checking thing--at many stadiums the people working the concession stands are volunteers or temporary employees.

as a resident of wisconsin, I think I can comment on drinking and football. At university games, there are no alcohol sales (except for in the club seats and boxes) and the games are reasonably tame. Yes many students come drunk, but they tend to either sober up by the end or leave early. (there is no exiting and re-entering) At Packers games there beer sales at the games and you can watch people spend 1/2 the game away from their seats buying beer (limit of two/person at a time). One game we watched two men (probably in their 60s) take turns buying the beer. each of them missed 1/2 the game. I cannot understand spending that much money (tickets, parking, beer) and time to miss half the game standing in line buying beer or for the bathroom. But people get totally blitzed as in stripping at a game in december when the temperature is 0.



In Thailand the government implemented a policy of limited alcohol sales nationwide by time....

It permitted businesses to sell alcohol between the times of 11:00-14:00 and 17:00-0:00.

Unless the consumer purchases 10l of alcohol - which can be done at anytime!