Booze and basketball: Why binge drinking increases during March Madness

For every tip-off during March Madness, it’s a sure bet that students at the schools playing in the basketball tournament will be tipping up more beer bottles than usual.

This was one of the key findings of an analysis we conducted recently on the impact of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on college students’ drinking behavior.

We are all economists with a keen interest in the relationship between health and economics. Our recent study shines light on the well-established fact that alcohol consumption – and the negative effects that come along with it – often goes hand in hand with college sports. For that reason, college sporting events represent prime opportunities to think about ways to curtail drinking among college students.

A long-standing tradition

Researchers have long known that alcohol consumption rises during college sporting events. Study after study has found that college students were more likely to binge drink on football game days.

The same is true for college basketball. For instance, a study of 206 undergraduate students at Syracuse University in 2003 – when Syracuse won the NCAA men’s basketball championship – found that alcohol consumption on the two game days of the championship exceeded what is typical on campus.

Negative effects

Binge drinking is associated with many harmful outcomes for the drinker and those around them. These outcomes include lower grades and increased rates of drunk driving and sexual assault. One study found that assaults, vandalism and arrests for disorderly conduct and alcohol-related offenses increased on college football game days in the towns that hosted the game, especially after upsets.

What is it about college sports that seems to lead to increased rates of drinking? The first thing to understand is that college students binge drink and report heavy alcohol use at higher rates than their peers who aren’t in college. Social norms likely play a large role in this fact. For instance, one study found that college students tend to think that their peers drink more than they actually do. This perception can cause individuals to believe that heavy drinking is the norm, not the exception.

A different study found that alcohol consumption can be reduced among college students by providing them with accurate information about how often their peers drink.

The role of high-stakes games

In order to understand how a major college sporting event affects alcohol consumption across different colleges, we examined the effect of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on college students’ reported alcohol use.