Many fans lucky enough to have tickets to one of the NFL conference championship games this weekend will cheer for their team with a beer in hand, and about one in 12 will leave the stadium legally drunk, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota People under the age of 35 were eight times more likely to be legally drunk than other attendees, and fans who "tailgate" in the parking lot before the game were the worst offenders: They were 14 times more likely to leave a game intoxicated.
In an anonymous survey given by the researchers after administering a breathalyzer test, one in four tailgaters owned up to downing at least five alcoholic beverages, with those in the highest BAC range knocking back an average of 6.6 drinks.
Doug Shavel, who has tailgated at New York Jets home games in Giants Stadium for more than 10 years, agreed that tailgating and drinking seem to go hand in hand.
"Everywhere you look voluminous quantities of alcohol are being consumed," he said. "People arrive by 9 a.m. for a [1 p.m.] kickoff and they're drinking the entire time. Some continue drinking postgame while they wait for the parking lot to clear out."
Shavel has seen a lot of bad behavior in his time that can be attributed to drinking. Once a drunken fan vomited on the person sitting next to him, then later he saw someone puking in the aisles. At another event, Shavel said he saw a man who was so inebriated he had to be carried out on a stretcher with an IV attached to his arm.
In his own tailgating circle, a friend once drank until he was so drunk he fell over into a pit of hot charcoal. "That's the exception, not the rule," Shavel insisted.
In fact, the percentage of drinkers discovered by the study may seem surprisingly low to anyone who has ever attended a sporting event and witnessed an alcohol-fueled fist fight or someone staggering through the stands.
But lead investigator Darin Erickson, an assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota's School of Public Health said the numbers match up with findings from a previous study.
"People's perception of how many people get drunk at games may be somewhat distorted. Their estimates are likely greater than the actual numbers," he said.
The findings make sense to Dennis Gregory, a Jets season ticket holder for the past 19 years. Sure there are usually a few falling down drunks at every game, but for the most part, he thinks the majority of people tend to keep it under control.
"You want to drink and have a good time, but you can't be out there pounding down beer and shots of Jack Daniels or you won't remember the game," he said.
Erikson is quick to point out that even if the study's findings are understatements, they still translate into thousands of people drunk people at every game who might potentially get behind the wheel.
This latest study is one of the first to show just how much of a public safety concern drinking at major sports events has become. Erikson believes sporting venues should take more responsibility for the problem by doing a better job of policing drivers' sobriety, discouraging tailgating and declining to serve alcohol to people who've had one too many.