Can selling beer help college fans drink less?


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    West Virginia once allowed a "pass out" of the stadium during halftime, when fans could go back to tailgates and drink alcohol. University officials say selling beer inside the stadium has curtailed heavy drinking outside the stadium.

    - Photo: Chelsi Baker

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    In seven home games during the 2011 season, the university took in about $500,000 in beer sales. Vendor Suzanne Sagosky serves beer to a fan in Milan Puskar Stadium on September 1, 2012. Most of the home games for the 2012 season are sold out.

    - Photo: Chelsi Baker

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    West Virginia University police officers watch as fans come through the entrance to Milan Puskar Stadium before WVU's game against Marshall September 1, 2012. Police statistics show game-day arrests dropped 35 percent last year, the first season that alcohol was sold inside the stadium.

    - Photo: Chelsea Baker

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    Jonathan Cooper of Morgantown, West Virginia, drinks beer in the stands while watching the Mountaineers play Marshall on September 1, 2012. The stadium can hold 60,000 fans.

    - Photo: Chelsi Baker

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    A West Virginia fan holds her bottle of beer while holding her arms up for kickoff September 1, 2012. The Mountaineers football team is ranked eighth in the nation this season.

    - Photo: Chelsi Baker

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    Mark Hughes of Beckley, W.Va., high-fives a friend while holding a bottle of beer during the West Virginia University football game September 1. The Mountaineers beat Marshall 69-34, their highest-scoring opener in history.

    - Photo: Chelsi Baker

The college football season kicked off this weekend. There were lots of superhuman feats and exciting outcomes, from a fresh-faced Alabama team beating No. 8 Michigan by 20 points to Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell running and catching for more yards than the entire Boise State team in the Spartans' 17-13 win.

But there's one thing you don't find at these games, which is a staple of the rest of top-shelf sports action: beer. You can buy it at just about any big sporting event. But colleges and universities have long eschewed the practice, saying alcohol created an undesirable atmosphere in their stadiums or didn't fit their values. Kai Ryssdal talks with Stephen J. Dubner from Freakonomics Radio about a new experiment in selling beer at college games, which has had a surprising result.


The story of this experiment starts at West Virginia University, where Oliver Luck is athletic director. At football games at WVU, he started to notice a few familiar sights -- the unbelievable, sheer athleticism, the marching bands... and the freshmen barfing all over the stadium.

"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,” said Luck. 

Luck is the father of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck -- this year’s No. 1 NFL draft pick -- and a former NFL quarterback himself for a few years. Now, as a college athletic director, he has 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.

It's not what you think. 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.

Not exactly a shocking or surprising, but that doesn’t mean schools 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.

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

Right about now you might be saying: Huh? Shouldn't selling beer in the stadium mean there will be 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.

"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,” said Bob Roberts, West Virginia University police chief. 

The sale of alcohol in the stadium also brought in extra revenue -- West Virginia cleared about $500,000 from beer sales that first year. They project it will probably double this year.

And Luck's experiment is expanding to other schools. The University of Minnesota wanted to try selling beer in its stadium. However, it had to get support from the state legislature first -- so Luck talked to some legislative aides along the way. As a result, this fall Minnesota will be starting a two-year trial of beer sales.

Now, the issue of alcohol abuse is complicated and not something to make light of. It's a 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 may work about this approach: 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.

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

Here are the Division 1A (FBS) teams that sell beer to all fans inside college-owned stadiums:

 

 

 

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 you?

Stephen Dubner: Hey Kai, I’m good.  How are you?

Ryssdal: I’m all right. 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.

Oliver Luck: 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.

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.

Ryssdal: 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 50 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 you, man.

Dubner: Thanks so much, Kai.

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