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About 8% of baseball and football fans -- especially tailgaters -- leave games legally drunk, U of M study finds

About 40 percent of people streaming out of baseball and football games have some amount of alcohol in their bodies and about 8 percent are legally drunk, a new University of Minnesota study has found.

The study, published online Tuesday in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, conducted voluntary breathalyzer exams on 362 adults as they left 13 baseball games and three football games. Participants, who were approached randomly on public sidewalks, were also asked questions about how much alcohol they consumed before and during the sporting event.

“People are generally surprised that [the percentage of people found legally drunk] wasn’t even higher than it was,” said Darin Erickson, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, in a phone interview. “But just the sheer number of people who are attending these events really make that 8 percent significant.”

The Minnesota Twins, for example, averaged almost 40,000 fans per home game in 2010. If the results of the U of M study are representative, then each of those games saw about 3,200 fans leaving Target Field legally drunk. 

“I do think there is a potential public health issue here,” said Erickson. (Using Target Field as an example was my idea, not Erickson’s. He wouldn't reveal where his research was conducted.)

(UPDATE: A reader has pointed out to me that not all 40,000 fans would be of legal drinking age, so my 3,200 number is an over-estimation. If we assume that 10 to 20 percent of those 40,000 Twins' home fans are under the age of 21 [the legal drinking age], then "only" 2,560 to 2,880 of them would be leaving Target Field drunk.)

Biggest predictors of intoxication
The study found tailgating to be the biggest predictor of who will leave a game intoxicated.

In fact, people who had tailgated before a game were 14 times more likely to have a .08 or higher (the legal definition of intoxication) blood alcohol reading (BAC) than those who hadn’t tailgated.

But it’s not just the number of alcoholic beverages consumed by tailgaters that make them more likely to be drunk at the end of the game, said Erickson. “How long you drink is also predictive of having elevated BACs,” he explained. “That’s part of the reason we see tailgating as being a high risk factor. They’re drinking for longer periods of time.”

Age was also a predictor of alcohol consumption. Fans under the age of 35 were nine times more likely to be legally drunk than others exiting the stadiums.

Refusals and other limitations
Like all studies, this one had its limitations. Many of the fans approached by the researchers refused to take the breath test, and those people may or may not have been more likely to have BACs over the .08 threshold. (Interestingly, the refusal rate for participating in the study was somewhat higher after football games, after nighttime games and after games in which the home team lost.) The researchers also excluded fans who appeared extremely intoxicated — for safety reasons but also because those fans would not be able to give their informed consent to participate in the study. Again, such exclusions may have biased the results.

Still, the findings from this U of M study are remarkably similar to those of a 1998 study in which the blood alcohol levels of male sports fans were assessed before and during six baseball games at two stadiums. That study also found that about 8 percent of the fans were over the legal BAC limit of .08.

The U of M research also brings to mind a 2003 study that found a 41 percent relative increase in fatal automobile accidents across the country after the telecast of Super Bowl games (when compared to similar time frames on the Sundays immediately before and after those games). As those researchers pointed out, this relative increase in fatalaties was greater than that seen on New Year’s Eve.

They warned people to avoid night driving on Super Bowl Sunday and for hospital trauma centers to up their staff on those evenings.

FYI: The Super Bowl falls on Feb. 6 this year.

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Comments (7)

The increase of driving accidents after the Super Bowl is of interest, but just quoting peoples' BACs without knowing if they're driving seems pointless. Let's be honest: watching sports sober is kinda boring. The idea that "oh my God, people are intoxicated!!" strikes me as naive.

The NEJM article is fascinating.

I’ll take issue with Jeff’s statement (“…watching sports sober is kinda boring”). If you’re a fan of the sport, it’s almost never boring, even, maybe especially, when you’re sober. If you don’t care for the sport, no amount of alcohol will make the game interesting. It’ll just make it blurry and incomprehensible.

Why, he asks rhetorically, aren’t the Minneapolis police, the State Patrol, St. Paul police, and anyone else with jurisdiction, regularly stationed outside the various sports venues in the Twin Cities – say, just outside parking lot exits – and nailing a hefty percentage of those 3,200 drunk drivers before they have a chance to ruin or end someone else’s life? The same thing could probably be said about appropriate venues in Duluth and Rochester. Setting up special checkpoints for the same purpose – taking drunk drivers off the roads – on holiday weekends seems like small potatoes compared to a concerted effort after home games. Don’t set up the checkpoints until late in the game, so drivers aren’t able to strategize to avoid parking where they won’t be monitored. There are already police at the various venues for traffic-control purposes, and – aside from the not-trivial budgetary considerations – there’s no law enforcement reason to avoid this additional traffic control strategy.

If the goal is to get drunk drivers off the roads and save the lives of innocent victims, why give sports fans a free pass?

Perhaps Mr. Schoch doesn't realize that sobriety checkpoints are unconstitutional in the State of Minnesota.

Point taken, Chris. A newbie to the state, I wasn't aware that checkpoints are unconstitutional here. They're routinely used in Colorado.

With local police impersonating homeless people in seat belt stings who would volunteer for the breathalyser test even if they were totally sober?

Anyone else remember the Super Bowl domestic violence claim? http://www.snopes.com/crime/statistics/superbowl.asp