Marketplace Logo Donate

Daily business news and economic stories from Marketplace

Can selling beer help college fans drink less?

Subscribe to our Newsletters

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:




What's Next

Latest Episodes From Our Shows

12:52 PM PDT
May 29, 2023
May 26, 2023
May 29, 2023
May 26, 2023
May 26, 2023
May 25, 2023
Exit mobile version