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Professional Sports Stadiums Sell Alcohol to Pseudo-Underage and Intoxicated Buyers

  • Alcohol and sports do not mix well.
  • Recent findings show that individuals appearing to be underage and intoxicated can purchase alcohol at professional sports stadiums.
  • Location was key: the odds of a sale to pseudo-underage and -intoxicated buyers in the stands were 2.9 times larger than the odds of a sale at the concession booths.

Alcohol problems at sports stadiums received considerable media coverage in the early 1980s, leading to several reforms in alcohol-service and enforcement practices.  But problems still exist.  A recent study of alcohol use at professional sports stadiums across the United States has found that alcohol sales continue at an alarming rate to pseudo-underage and -intoxicated patrons. 

Results will be published in the November issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.

“Despite media coverage of alcohol-related problems at sporting events, there has been surprisingly little published research addressing alcohol use, sales or problems at professional sport stadiums in the U.S.,” said Traci L. Toomey, associate professor in the school of public health at the University of Minnesota and corresponding author for the study.  “This is the first study that we know of that looked systematically at the likelihood of illegal alcohol sales at professional sport stadiums across a larger number of stadiums.”

“Alcohol problems at sports stadiums received considerable press attention in the early 1980s as there were several incidents involving violence in the stadiums and drinking/driving incidents stemming from intoxicated fans leaving sporting events,” added James Mosher, senior policy advisor at the CDM Group in Felton, California.  “As a result, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration developed a Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) training program for alcohol servers in stadium venues.  In addition, a large number of colleges and universities have banned alcohol sales at their sporting venues and events … and many campuses are now instituting policies to address the problem of alcohol consumption before games, commonly known as ‘tailgating.’”

Unfortunately, Mosher added, efforts made two decades ago did not apparently “take.”  As an example, he cited a recent horrific drunk driving crash in New Jersey caused by an intoxicated fan who left a New York Giants football game after being served while obviously intoxicated.  “Many sports stadiums are known to condone alcohol-related rowdy behavior that can easily lead to violence as well as a likely location to begin drinking-driving incidents,” he said. 

For this study, researchers had individuals who appeared younger than 21 years old – but were, in fact, age 21 or older – and individuals feigning intoxication attempt to purchase alcohol at 16 professional hockey, basketball, baseball, and football venues in five states.  There were 159 pseudo-underage and 159 pseudo-intoxicated purchase attempts.  Researchers also collected seller, purchase-attempt, and event characteristics. 

Results showed that the overall sales rate to the pseudo-underage buyers was 18 percent, and to the pseudo-intoxicated buyers was 74 percent.  The best predictor for either type of illegal sale was location: the odds of a sale to a pseudo-underage buyer and a pseudo-intoxicated buyer in the stands were 2.9 times larger than the odds of a sale at the concession booths.

“Nearly one out of five youth who appeared under age 21 could purchase alcohol without age identification at the 16 professional hockey, football, basketball, and baseball stadiums in the U.S. that we assessed,” said Toomey.  “Approximately three out of four fans who appeared obviously intoxicated could easily purchase alcohol at these professional sporting events.  What this indicates to me is that we have had some success in emphasizing the importance of not selling alcohol to underage people.  The likelihood of alcohol establishments selling alcohol to underage youth was 50 to 99 percent across communities during the early 1990s.  However, we still need to get the likelihood of sales to underage youth even lower across all venues, and we have significantly more work to do to address sales to obviously intoxicated patrons.”

Mosher strongly agreed.  “A 74 percent violation rate is simply unacceptable and demonstrates that even basic steps to insure compliance with the law are not being taken.  Second, the study confirms what prevention specialists have long suspected, that alcohol sales in the stands – as opposed to the concessions – create high risk for illegal sales.”

Toomey speculated that there are several reasons for why people in the stands may have a better chance of “flying under the radar” than people at the concession booths.  “One reason may be that when alcohol is sold in the stands, it may be more difficult for the servers to hear or to see the customer to assess their age and level of intoxication,” she said.  “The servers may feel pressure to make the sale quickly in the stands, to get to all of the customers, and to get out of the way of fans who are trying to watch the game, giving the server less time to do the proper assessment.  Also, we have found that alcohol sales are less likely when managers are present … the servers in the stands may feel that they are not being watched as closely by managers compared to the servers located in the booths.”

Mosher added that observation, or the lack thereof, is the very reason that RBS training may not work to reduce illegal sales by vendors in the stands.  He also questioned whether serving alcohol in the stands made sense strictly from a business point of view.

“We have found here in California that banning alcohol at beaches has had very positive effects, not only in terms of reducing alcohol-related violence and rowdiness at the beaches but also for local businesses that initially opposed the bans,” he said.  “Instead of reducing the number of beachgoers, as was feared, it actually increased use of the beaches, and increased sales in nearby businesses.  With the reduction in intoxicated beachgoers, people put off by the disruption started coming in greater numbers, particularly families.  I believe the same phenomenon will occur at sports stadiums.” 

Meanwhile, Toomey said there is an important message here for entire communities.  “Illegal alcohol sales affect more people than just those who are served the alcohol,” she said.  “As youth and adults become more intoxicated, they may cause disruptions, get into arguments, or injure other fans attending the games.  After leaving the events, they may damage property surrounding the stadiums or get behind the wheel and crash into other fans or individuals in the community.  This really is a larger problem that needs to be addressed by every community that houses a professional sport stadium.”

Funding for this Addiction Science Made Easy project is provided by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center National Office, under the cooperative agreement from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of SAMHSA.

Articles were written based on the following published research:

Traci L. Toomey, Darin J. Erickson, Kathleen M. Lenk, Gunna R. Kilian. (November 2008).  Likelihood of illegal alcohol sales at professional sport stadiums.   Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER). 32(11): 1859-1864.

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