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MLB's strange brew

When MLB announced the addition of beer vending machines at Target Field, it also announced the end of four decades of trying to limit fans' alcohol consumption.

Careful you don't get trampled
Careful you don't get trampled
Ronald Martinez

On Monday, ESPN's professional brand enthusiast Darren Rovell breathlessly announced the debut of self-serve beer vending machines at Target Field. The Twins are on the road at the moment, but the machines—spearheaded by a partnership between MLB, concessions company Delaware North, and brewing giant Anheuser Busch—will be fully operational in time for next Tuesday's All Star Game in Minneapolis. As you might expect of Rovell, he reported this collaboration as a wonderful meet-cute story of mega-corporate synergy. In truth, it's a disturbing reversal of almost 40 years of league efforts to curtail alcohol consumption at the ballpark.

It's amazing we haven't seen a self-serve beer vending machine before now, since it's an idea that combines the Man Cave sensibilities of the zeitgeist with the modern consumer's desire for zero human interaction. The delay probably stemmed from the logistics of offering this gift to baseball fans without it resulting in a legion of Barney Gumbles with their mouths glued to the taps.

Rovell's PR-Speak tries to reassure the reader that all precautions have been taken to prevent a boozehound Thunderdome from erupting in the Twin Cities. According to him, the machines will operate via separately purchased cards that entitle fans to fill their cup with the exact amount of beer that they want, because the vending machine beer is dispensed by the ounce. A representative of Delaware North emphasized to Rovell that this allows consumers to purchase as little beer as they like.

That's great if your primary concern is abandoned half-drunk bottles of Bud Lite Lime. If you're more worried about how much fans can drink, what kind of limits are imposed on vending machine beer purchases? Per Rovell:

The machine allows a customer to use the card to pour up to 48 ounces of beer every 15 minutes.

That sounds less like a limit and more like Wade Boggs flying coast to coast.

But maybe this only looks bad when written down. Is 48 ounces of beer every 15 minutes more than a person can currently purchase via non-vending machine means? I concede that every method of beer purchase, self-serve or bartender served, carries with it the potential for exploitation. Humans have yet to devise a system they can't game, and the truly dedicated lush will always find a way to maximize his/her booze consumption per hour, be they at the ballpark or elsewhere. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll ignore how consumers can skirt the rules and only consider what current rules permit.

MLB stadiums allow customers to buy no more than two beers at a time (some even top out at one). According to the stats compiled by TEAM (Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management, a non-profit that trains employees in many sports leagues, including MLB), the maximum beer cup at half of all major league stadiums size is 24 ounces. At most others, it's around 20. So yes, there are many parks where you could technically purchase 48 ounces of beer every 15 minutes.

But consider that those 24 ounce cups are the max, not the average. In most ballparks, such sizes are sold at special locations, sometimes at "club" sections with semi-exclusive access. Most concession stands do not sell 24-ounce beer cups, and the same is true for the beer vendors who roam the stands.

The average beer sold at a ballpark is 14.8 ounces. That means on average, a fan can purchase a little less than 30 ounces of beer at any given time. Assuming said fan is able chug that beer down in 15 minutes, work his/her way through a concession stand line to order more, and repeat every quarter-hour, this adds up to just shy of 120 ounces of beer consumed every hour.

Compare that to self-serve beer vending machines, which would allow fans to purchase a mind-boggling 192 ounces every hour. That fan wouldn't have to wait on line at just the right concession stand or hope the beer guy came to his/her section either. And assuming there are enough machines to meet demand, the fan wouldn't have to wait all that long for a refill.

The vending machines essentially remove all barriers to maximum alcohol consumption for any fan with a credit card. That has a democratic ring to it, as long as you ignore the ensuing public health and safety nightmare of 40,000 fans whose drinking limits have been lifted, most of whom will have to drive themselves home.

Granted, drinking 192 ounces of beer an hour might not be physically possible for the human stomach, or liver. The number of people who will consume anything close to that volume of alcohol is unlikely to be significant, especially when you account for the speed bumps that inevitably arise when consumers first confront self-serve technology. (Think about your first encounters with a self-checkout register at the supermarket.) And as Rovell's article notes, there will be stadium employees nearby to check IDs and cut off the folks who've had a few too many.

As hypothetical as it might be, the worst case scenario for beer consumption offered by these vending machines is still worth considering. That MLB would approve any mechanism to significantly increase drinking by fans is staggering. Especially since baseball had actively worked for decades to suppress fan drinking.

Beer and baseball are inseparable, but as with any other union, the two have had their ups and downs. Like much of America in the 20th century, baseball maintained a semi-functional alcoholism until the 1970s, when things started to get a little rough. Attendance declined drastically in that decade, and those who showed up at ballparks transformed their atmosphere into an amalgam of Animal House and The Warriors.

Desperate for any paying customers, teams shrugged their shoulders and scheduled ill-conceived promotions like Ten Cent Beer Night. Drunks running onto the field, violent verbal threats against players, and brawls among inebriated hordes in the stands became accepted as part of the stadium-going experience. Baseball fans who didn't want to risk a whiskey bottle to the head or a slurred challenge to a fistfight stayed away in droves.

By the early 1980s, MLB finally realized that stadiums full of tanked would-be pugilists wasn't in the game's long-term interests. This realization coincided with a larger societal recognition of the dangers of alcohol overconsumption in general and the dangers of drunk driving in particular. Without much publicity, teams began to impose limits on alcohol purchases at stadiums, with most parks enforcing last call in the seventh inning. More security was hired to handle drunk patrons and eject those who couldn't control themselves. Bag searches at the gates cut down on fans who looked at ballparks as BYOB establishments.

Then as now, teams were free to make their own alcohol policies, so results varied. But overall, drunken misbehavior by fans fell off drastically by the late 1980s, and attendance began to rise accordingly. While obnoxious drunks will always find their ways to sporting events, the sheer number of those who do nowadays pales in comparison to the bad old days of the 1970s. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James marveled at how quickly this change happened, and how little it was remarked on.

MLB's self-policing on this issue was a rare instance of the league being in vanguard of its industry; the NFL, for instance, lagged way behind in similar efforts well into the 1990s. Until recently, MLB had shown no sign of wanting to reverse their position on this issue. Throughout the 2000s, the league continued to take measures—such as requiring team employees to undergo TEAM training—that demonstrated a dedication to curtailing alcohol consumption at ballgames. The installation of beer vending machines demonstrates the exact opposite.

If MLB's move is surprising, it's not so shocking that they've made it at the behest of InBev (the European booze conglomco and Anheuser Busch's corporate parent), the same corporation that bullied Brazil into reversing its alcohol ban at football stadiums so it could sell beer at the World Cup. InBev is the sort of international corporate behemoth that gets whatever it wants. If it wants to try out self-serve beer vending machines, then Target Field will have to be its guinea pig.

Of course MLB wants to make its corporate partners happy. The league is a business, after all, and in this regard they're no worse than any other business. Which is too bad, since for years, when it came to fighting fan drunkenness, they were better.