Beer and wine sales at UT football games not quite brewing crime

It might seem axiomatic: Beer at a college football game brews bad behavior.

So when the University of Texas announced that it would offer beer and wine at Royal-Memorial Stadium this year for the first time in school history, there was concern in some quarters that rowdy and obnoxious behavior would dampen the game day experience for many Longhorns fans.

Although there have been isolated pockets of low-level rowdiness at the three home football games so far in the season — the fourth, against Kansas State, is Saturday — there has been no increase in arrests, officials say.

On those three game days, a cumulative total of 22 people were arrested across the UT campus. During the first three home games in 2012, 2013 and 2014, there were 26, 35 and 13 arrests, respectively. But calls to police totaled 443 during the three home games combined so far this year, at least 65 more than in any comparable period in the three previous years. It’s unclear what role, if any, alcohol played in those arrests and police calls.

The arrest trends are also true for other alcohol-selling universities. At UT, as well as other schools, common offenses are underage drinking and public intoxication, but anecdotal evidence suggests that serving alcohol in a stadium curbs binge drinking before games and at halftime, when some fans exit for alcohol-fueled tailgating. It also helps that stadium servers are trained to recognize when someone has had enough.

“Each game has its own unique tenor to it. You can’t necessarily take one game and say the same types of things will occur at the next game,” UT Police Chief David Carter said. “At the conclusion of the season, I’m going to work with our campus safety and security partners to see if there is some kind of significant change. At this time, we don’t have a conclusion that says more incidents are occurring.”

Mixed fan reactions

By adding football to the list of sporting events where alcohol is served — fans could imbibe at basketball, baseball and softball games starting last year — UT joined a small but growing list of colleges that sell alcoholic beverages at their premiere sports events. UT officials said the move would generate revenue to help support numerous men’s and women’s varsity sports.

Beer and wine prices range from $8 to $10, and sales are cut off after the third quarter. Alcohol sales thus far in the season have generated $1.25 million in revenue for UT. Nonalcoholic beverages and food sales have outpaced beer and wine sales, with bottled water the highest-selling item.

For some fans, spirits aren’t flowing the way they want.

“The ambience is very different with alcohol,” said Gretchen Nagy, whose family has had season tickets to Longhorn football games for many years.

Nagy attended last month’s matchup against Rice University, which was the first time UT sold alcoholic beverages to general admission ticket holders; fans in clubs and suites have long enjoyed the privilege. Several people sitting nearby in the upper west deck drank to excess, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for Nagy, her husband and their 12-year-old daughter, she said.

“They were drunk when they sat down,” Nagy said. “They continued to drink. Then they became obnoxious — the cursing, the language. And the smell of stale beer and trash left behind — you can imagine what that was like in warm weather with the beer sitting around for hours.”

In contrast with Nagy, Geoff Royall didn’t notice any alcohol-related rowdiness in the stands during the Rice game.

“It was a normal football game, just one where you could buy a cold one,” Royall said, adding that he did so. “It’s about the only thing Steve Patterson did that I liked, and you can quote me on that.”

That was a reference to UT’s former men’s athletics director, who had pushed for alcohol sales.

Beats binge drinking

Before sales started at football games, UT police found that other universities hadn’t seen any jump in criminal activity on game day after they started selling alcohol.

West Virginia University, which started selling alcohol in 2011, saw police calls drop by 6 percent, arrests by 32 percent and charges by 21 percent a year later. That university’s police chief, Bob Roberts, said the school implemented a few initiatives, including educating fans on proper behavior and enforcing the “no pass-out” rule, which prohibits fans from re-entering the stadium once they leave.

UT has also implemented the latter policy this year, with an exception for the alumni center, which has a protected corridor from the stadium that Texas Exes members and nonmembers can use.

“I do think that alcohol sales help to cut back on some of the binge drinking issues that we have,” but it’s certainly not the only solution, Roberts said.

Ed Reynolds, police chief at the University of North Texas, said his data also haven’t shown a change in criminal activity since the school started selling alcohol last year. “It appears that tailgating activities from our standpoint are ending earlier,” he said.

Some assumptions about the expected effects of beer and wine sales break down upon closer inspection.

An article published in June in the Journal of Sports Economics found that beer availability didn’t increase attendance or revenue at 29 universities from 2005 to 2012. However, the study focused exclusively on such mid-major schools as San Jose State and Bowling Green, not on major conference universities.

But a 1991 article in the journal Public Choice found that traffic accidents and arrests for driving under the influence increased after Arizona State University banned beer from its stadium in the 1970s.

“It forces students to go out and binge drink before they go into the stadium,” said William Boyes, a professor emeritus of economics at Arizona State and co-author of the study.

Game day vigilance

About 200 law enforcement personnel from the university, city, school district, county and state are on duty during each UT home game day. Representatives from most of those agencies, as well as weather officials and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, also staff a game day operations center from the UT police station across the street from the stadium.

A police captain is in a control booth run by the athletics department inside the stadium while university-employed special events staffers monitor for bad behavior that doesn’t necessarily rise to a crime.

Tailgating areas, such as those along Red River Street and in empty parking lots along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, are breeding grounds for public intoxication and underage drinking. Such behavior trickles into the stadium, especially at night games, when some people have been drinking all day.

A team that is having a good season can also mean higher attendance, and with it, more crime. Considering attendance at Royal-Memorial can be more than 100,000, the average number of arrests is relatively low — fewer than seven per game over the last three years.

Though there have been 33 percent more police calls this year on campus during game days than the average of the last three years, police said that several factors affect the number of calls and that it is unclear why there have been more this year. Some of those calls for help came from blocks away from the stadium, and they could have nothing to do with football or alcohol.

There is, of course, a broader question behind the advent of beer and wine sales at UT’s athletic events and at those of other colleges and universities: Is it even appropriate?

After all, higher education administrators are fond of saying that students are their top priority. But when it comes to alcohol, most students are underage. Drinking is a major problem on college campuses, and alcohol is also a factor in much misery, pain and death in the larger society. So why encourage its consumption?

“Schools don’t believe it’s good,” Boyes said. “The only reason they’re doing it is for the money.”

Asked about the appropriateness, UT President Gregory L. Fenves replied: “I think it’s a pretty common aspect of major athletic events. We’re attracting 100,000 people from all across the state and country. It’s not an unusual part of the fan experience.”

Fans can report disruptive behavior and offenses in the stands by texting TXFAN to 69050, and police or UT’s special events personnel will respond. Fenves noted that there hasn’t been any increase in such reports. “If we were seeing more problems, that would give me cause for concern,” he said.

And although discarded beer cans weren’t being cleaned up promptly and properly at the start of the season, that problem has been corrected, Fenves said. Moreover, police are finding fewer empty liquor bottles in the stands, a sign that people aren’t sneaking booze in as much as they did in the past, Carter said.

Ensuring the safety of visitors and students is paramount, the UT police chief said.

“People are coming to enjoy the game and the camaraderie associated with that,” Carter said. “The culture at UT is a good one.”

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