Jan. 19, 2011 -- 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.
Tailgating Sports Fans Most Likely to Drink
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.
A typical argument often made by stadium management is that it's nearly impossible to police attendees, particularly tailgaters, because they bring their own alcohol and don't patronize stadium vendors. Erikson countered, "For another study we sent actors who pretended to be intoxicated into events to try and buy alcohol -- 74 percent of the time they were served. So they aren't off the hook."
In a related matter, watching sports doesn't seem to be kind to the waistline either.
Though there are no statistics available specifically on tailgater's eating and habits or the average calorie consumption of game attendees, those watching at home pack away their fair share of food and drink.
The U.S. Calorie Control Council reported that while watching the Super Bowl, Americans scarf down 30 million pounds of snacks and enough fat to equal the weight of 13,000 NFL offensive linemen; the average armchair quarterback swallows 1,300 calories through food alone during the game ? and as many as 2,500 calories when you include beer, wine and soda.
Keren Gilbert, a registered dietitian and president of Decision Nutrition in Great Neck, N.Y., said over-indulgence is part of the sports watching culture, whether people attend the event or watch it on TV.
"You need realistic expectations for tackling the problem. I could tell you to bring fruits and veggies and put ice in your beer, but nobody is going to listen that," she admitted.
Instead, Gilbert advised setting a predetermined limit on how much you plan to eat and drink, and then sticking to it. Awareness of what you're putting in your mouth is also important, especially when you consider that just one chip can contain up to 10 calories and two grams of fat. She also recommended alternating every beer with a glass of water to slow down drinking and for those going to the game to nominate a designated driver.