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Sports fans surprisingly sober when leaving pro games, study shows

Scott Boehm / Getty Images file

Chicago bears fans tailgate prior to the game between the New England Patriots against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Dec. 12 in Chicago, Illinois.

We hear there are a couple of very important football games coming up this weekend.

But here's a counterintuitive finding: When fans leave those games, whether they're stumbling out of Chicago's Soldier Field or Pittsburgh's Heinz Field -- most of them will be surprisingly sober, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota gave breath tests to sports fans as they left professional football and baseball games, and found that nearly 8 percent were legally drunk, meaning their blood alcohol content, or BAC, was at 0.08 or higher. Overall, about 40 percent had a positive BAC (that's including those who were legally drunk) and nearly 60 percent were not even a little drunk, with zero BAC. 

As the study's lead author has heard from quite a few people -- that actually doesn't sound all that bad, right? "I guess my reaction to that is ... that’s a lot of intoxicated individuals, especially when you think of the vast numbers of people who attend these events, says Darin Erickson, the study's lead author and an assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota. "Some of these modern arenas easily hold 50,000-plus, and you spin it out across an entire season, an entire sport -- it sounds like a small number, but I don't think that means this isn't an important public health issue." 

It's the first study to attempt to measure BAC levels after professional sports games in the U.S.; a similar 1992 Canadian study showed similar results. The survey included 362 people ages 21 to 64, who took breath tests after three football games and 13 baseball games. (It's a small sample size because it was tough to stop people outside stadiums who were on their way home, Erickson says.) About half of those surveyed said they drank at the game. 

The study also found that younger sports fans are the drunkest -- those 21 to 35 were more than nine times more likely to have BAC levels above 0.08. 

Erickson was tight-lipped on which football and baseball stadiums his research surveyed, only saying that it was one NFL stadium and one MLB stadium. (Although we can probably rule out Qwest Field, as Seahawks fans who order a "large" beer are actually getting one that's the same size as a "small," despite paying $1.25 more for the bigger size, a popular YouTube video suggests.)

"I think the implication, then, is that this many people are getting this intoxicated at these events -- what is this leading to?" Erickson says of the report, which was published online today in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. "We’re all aware of drinking and driving, but that’s only one of the outcomes," adding that alcohol often plays a factor in accidental injuries or violent assaults. 

Erickson may focus future research on tailgaters, who were fourteen times more likely to be legally drunk after exiting the game, compared to those that hadn't tailgated, the study shows. One in four tailgaters had five or more drinks at their pre-game parties.

What do you think about the report? How does it compare to the last professional sports game you attended? And is it really possible to enjoy a baseball game without a beer or two? 

You can find The Body Odd on Twitter and Facebook, and follow Melissa Dahl @melissadahl.