Drinking Your Way to Financial Success

Booze-fueled ideas tap into eager and growing market for some entrepreneurs.

Sept. 21, 2007 — -- It used to be that all one needed to play drinking games was some beer, cups and maybe a quarter or a deck of cards.

Not anymore.

A group of new entrepreneurs has decided to cash in on the thousands of college students who spend countless hours playing games with a very simple objective: drink as much as you can.

And then drink some more.

A number of retailers now market games and accessories aimed at making it easier or more fun to drink.

So in addition to the ubiquitous 12-pack, gaming drinkers can shell out a couple extra bucks for specialized dice, a deck of fancy "I Never" playing cards or the chance to spin a real roulette wheel that could result in drinking a shot.

There are even drinking-game pint glasses based on the adult-themed cartoon "Family Guy," featuring instructions to drink based on what happens on the show. For example, when the character Quagmire makes a sexual reference, every player must take three sips of their drink.

And the mother of all college drinking games, beer pong has spawned a virtual cottage industry of pong paraphernalia.

Hey, I've Got an Idea …

Most of these game manufacturers are small, privately held companies whose owners appear to make enough money to do this full time. They may not all be striking it rich, but they're making enough to buy a few rounds.

In fact, the owners typically came up with their ideas while drinking or trying to drink.

Take Bing Bong, a Philadelphia company that manufactures tables for friends to play beer pong.

Beer pong is a drinking game in which two teams on opposite sides of a table try to throw a ping pong ball into a triangle of cups placed in front of the other team. When the ball lands in a cup, the opposing team must drink the beer. The first team forced to drink all of its beer loses.

Tom Schmidt and his friend Matt Brady, both 30, started the company a little more than three years ago after they went to a birthday party at a small apartment. The Penn State University graduates wanted to play beer pong, but knew that a ping pong table — typically used for the game at college fraternities across the country — would never fit in the apartment.

"I said, 'We need a table that folds out,'" said Brady.

They came up with an idea for a long, narrow table that could fold up to the size of a large briefcase. It could fit in tight spaces and would be easy to carry but still long enough to play a proper game, whatever that was …

"It's a great social lubricant," Brady said.

Since then, they have sold more than 10,000 tables at $69 to $120 apiece, depending on the model — enough to make Bing Bong a full-time gig for both of them.

The tables, which the company says are great for playing beer pong — also called Beirut — at tailgate parties, can been customized with various bar or corporate logos.

Most of the tables are sold online, through novelty retailers such as Spencer Gifts, or at liquor stores, surf shops and bars, Schmidt said.

Bing Bong has also sponsored beer pong tournaments at bars that in turn sell the tables.

Promoting Binge Drinking?

Selling a line of products that is often linked with heavy drinking is not an easy task. Companies can come under harsh criticism and have been accused of encouraging binge drinking.

Most major corporations have steered away from manufacturing or selling drinking games.

Beer giant Anheuser-Busch tried sponsoring a series of beer pong events across the country in July 2005. To avoid backlash, it called the game Bud Pong and told its distributors to substitute water for beer. Bars had Bud Pong-branded tables, balls and glasses.

The New York Times even printed a story about the Bud Pong events.

"It's catching on like wildfire," an Anheuser-Busch spokeswoman said in the story. "We created it as an icebreaker for young adults to meet each other."

But the promotion was short-lived.

The Times story also pointed out that nobody was using water to play the game and suggested that the game encouraged binge drinking.

Two days later the beer-maker pulled the promotion, saying it had learned that bars were not using water, but actually letting patrons play the game with beer.

"It has come to our attention that despite our explicit guidelines, there may have been instances where this promotion was not carried out in the manner it was intended," the same Anheuser-Busch spokeswoman said when the game was pulled.

A year later, department store giant Kohl's was targeted by organizations that advocate responsible marketing of alcohol and related products for selling drinking games in its stores.

Bing Bong's Schmidt said he understands the concerns.

"We're trying to preach responsibility, and the game is actually at a leisurely pace compared to other drinking games," Schmidt said. "College drinking is not a new thing, and outlawing a table is not going to change problem drinkers from problem drinking and responsible drinkers from drinking responsibility."

Other companies also know about the perception.

Get Bombed, a company that makes brightly colored ping pong balls and racks to keep beer pong cups aligned, refused to talk about its game, which sells for $14.99.

In an e-mail to ABC News, a company representative wrote, "Since there seems to be a lot of controversy and ignorance towards the game, I hope you can appreciate our cautious approach."

Marketing, but Not Really

Tom McManus, CEO of online retailer KegWorks, put it best: "It's a funny market."

His company mostly sells products allowing people to create their own home bars. Out of roughly 4,000 items the company sells, six are drinking games, including the "Family Guy" cups.

"It's a part of our business that we don't actively advertise," he said. "If people are out there looking for it, we provide the service. … We don't market them actively through a lot of campaigns just because of the funny demographic that plays these games."

Numerous college newspapers, magazines and blogs have asked him to advertise, but KegWorks declines.

"We choose not to participate because we don't want to promote it to the underage community," McManus said.

"It's a line we debate all of time," he said. "We sell a whole bunch more of these things" if we choose to go after that market.

KegWorks advertises its products to those specifically searching for drinking games on sites including Google, Yahoo, eBay and Amazon.

McManus said a lot of recent college graduates and other entrepreneurs have popped up because large companies are avoiding the market.

"I'm guessing that Mattel is not putting [out] something like this," he said. "The big beer producers … they can't promote it, even though they would love to."

Those who manufacture such products, McManus said, need to "be prepared to face the wrath of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the other types of groups, and every binge drinking study."

"It's kind of that market," he said. "That there … that you can provide products to, but you don't want to actively market to."