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NFL vs. unruly fans: League out to protect game day experience

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Enlarge By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

Mike DiPiano Jr., 32, spends time with fellow Jets fans outside a game at Giants Stadium earlier this season.


To try to crack down on binge drinking by fans, the NFL has suggested all 32 teams limit the serving sizes and number of alcoholic drinks sold to fans this season to no more than two 20-ounce beers, two 6-ounce wines or two 1.5-ounce servings of hard liquor per transaction.

Only three clubs are selling beers larger than the suggested 20-ounce limit: the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals and Washington Redskins. Ten clubs have reduced their biggest beer sizes to comply with the NFL's recommendation. And 19 clubs already were selling servings of 20 ounces or less:

-- Reduced largest beer from 24 ounces to 20 ounces: Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks.

-- Reduced largest beer size from 22 ounces to 20 ounces: Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts.

-- Reduced largest beer size from 21 ounces to 20 ounces: Cincinnati Bengals.

-- Already at 20 ounces or less: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, St. Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Source: USA TODAY research

-- Compiled by Michael McCarthy


The NFL has recommended all 32 clubs limit tailgating to 3½ hours for the 2009 season. So far, only one team has complied: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Kansas City Chiefs already used that time frame. Here's a breakdown of tailgating times for the remaining 30 clubs:

-- Four hours: Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins.

-- Five hours: Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, St. Louis Rams.

-- Six hours: Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints.

Note: Tailgating hours are earliest opening times for some, not all, parking lots. The Chargers and Texans open lots for customers with pre-paid parking permits one hour earlier than listed. The Cowboys open lots four hours before games beginning at noon CT, five hours before late-afternoon and evening games.

By Michael McCarthy, USA TODAY

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Jets fan Luke Maxson says the NFL's push to crack down on drunken and disruptive fans by limiting tailgating to 3½ hours before each game might be the "final nail" that makes him give up his 16 season tickets.

Maxson, an ad executive from Mahopac, N.Y., and his brother Dave already are exchanging their lower-level seats for upper-deck seats at New York's new $1.6 billion stadium next season to avoid paying tens of thousands of dollars in personal seat license fees. He calls tailgating limits a money grab by teams wanting to force fans to pay for food and drink inside stadiums. If the NFL and its teams are so worried about drunken fans, they should drop alcohol sales and sponsorships, he said before the Jets' game Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

WHAT FANS SAY: NFL rooters sound off on tailgating scenes

TELL US: Is the NFL "Fan Code of Conduct" working?

"They can't have it both ways and maintain the loyalty of fans," says Maxson, 60, whose tailgate crew brings a portable bar with two beer taps, four tents, satellite TV and a camper to each Jets home game.

Kevin Grady, 33, hopes tailgating limits will reduce the fan misbehavior he has seen at many NFL stadiums. He points to a tailgater passed out in a trailer more than two hours before the Jets' 1 p.m. kickoff Sunday. "See that guy? Put that in your story," says the teacher from Meriden, Conn.

The conflicting views show the challenge facing the nation's most popular and powerful sports league as it tries to fully implement a crackdown on unruly fans during the second season of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's "Fan Code of Conduct" initiative.

The effort reflects rising concern among league officials that boozed-up, unruly fans are scaring away the family audience at a time when the number and quality of NFL game telecasts are increasing the attractiveness of watching at home for far less money.

Like Maxson, tailgaters across the nation show up at stadium sites well in advance of game time for a Sunday ritual of beers, buddies and burgers. But the NFL office believes the longer some fans tailgate the drunker they get, and the more likely they are to start trouble inside and outside stadiums. Its teams' perspective is slightly different: They want a safer environment, but also worry about driving away their most loyal customers.

So even as the NFL office has hired an outside auditor to evaluate teams' compliance with a set of 43 recommendations it issued this past summer to try to lessen bad behavior by fans, just two of the 32 clubs are complying with the tailgating limit.

Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers switched to the league's recommended tailgating limit of 3½ hours, according to a team-by-team survey by USA TODAY. The Kansas City Chiefs have limited tailgating to that time frame for several seasons. The other 30 teams continue to allow fans to tailgate for four to six hours before games.

The ominous voices of ticketholders such as Maxson notwithstanding, the NFL says other longtime season ticketholders are the ones who asked the league to clamp down on troublemakers ruining their game-day experience.

More than 16 months after he issued his league-wide fan-conduct code, Goodell says many ticket-buyers are noticing the difference.

"Fans are saying it's better and that's what matters," he says in a statement to USA TODAY. "I am hearing that directly and indirectly from fans."

Tailgating limits, however, are "a work in progress," says Jeffrey Miller, the NFL's director of strategic security programs.

"We hope folks will implement this, or gradually work toward the 3½ hours, because we think it provides us with a better opportunity to have fans come into our building in a condition that's not impaired," he says.

Drink sizes being reduced

Besides the tailgating limit, the league office's recommendations this summer included restricting the maximum serving size and number of alcoholic drinks sold in stadiums to no more than two 20-ounce beers; two 6-ounce wines or two 1½-ounce servings of hard liquor per transaction.

The league also called for all clubs to install text-messaging lines so fans can anonymously report troublemakers without leaving their seats.

Teams are embracing these recommendations more warmly than they are the tailgating suggestion. Ten clubs, including the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans, have reduced their biggest brews this season to comply with the 20-ounce suggestion. Only three teams now serve beers larger than 20 ounces: the Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins. The NFL had a leg up here: 19 clubs were at 20 ounces or less last season.

Some fans note the irony of the NFL cracking down on excessive drinking when the league — and its teams, through their own endorsement deals — accepts tens of millions of dollars in sponsorships annually from brewers such as Coors Light and Budweiser.

"The Miami stadium was just named Land Shark Stadium" after Land Shark lager, an Anheuser-Busch product, Anthony Jones, a 46-year-old financial planner, notes outside the Washington Redskins' FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

All 32 clubs now have text-messaging lines. That's up from 29 last season. Overall, NFL teams had received more than 3,200 text messages through Week 9, according to Miller, for an average of 21 per game. Some clubs such as the Dolphins and Tennessee Titans get more than 100 messages a game.

The league office appears to be serious about getting teams to follow its recommendations. An outside firm is currently "auditing" how well each club is implementing the best practices checklist, Miller says. That report is due later this season.

Goodell's code states intoxicated fans engaging in "irresponsible behavior" can be ejected and stripped of their season tickets. That's no idle threat, says Miller, for fans or for the teams.

After each of their home games, clubs are supposed to send league headquarters reports on the number of fan ejections, arrests and text-message reports of unruly behavior.

Through Nov. 9, NFL teams ejected more than 3,700 fans, or an average of 24 per game. Police had arrested 894. Those numbers are about the same at a comparable point last season, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy says.

The Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and Cardinals say they've revoked season tickets for fan-code violations. The Seahawks have canceled seven this season, up from one in all of 2008, team spokeswoman Suzanne Lavender says.

The league plans to conduct at least one fan survey at each game venue this season, Miller says. The goal: quiz up to 8,000 spectators on whether they've noticed any improvement in behavior.

Each team owner will get a "rating" relative to fan-conduct measures. Those who don't measure up, Miller says, will be subject to unspecified "remedial steps" by Goodell. "The commissioner has made it very clear to the owners that the fan-conduct initiative is very important," Miller says. "Not only because it's the right thing to do. It's also a revenue-impact item."

The NFL is surviving the recession better than most pro sports. The league's overall attendance is off 2% through Nov. 16 compared to the same point last season. The average TV ratings and viewership for game telecasts were up 12% and 14% respectively through Nov. 9 compared to same period last year.

The NFL's recommendations

The clubs deciding to pass on some of the league's suggestions offer a variety of reasons. A look at teams' compliance with some of the league office's fan-conduct recommendations:

•Tailgating time limits. The Dallas Cowboys and Broncos don't see enough reason to change. They continue to open parking lots as long as five hours before kickoff.

The Cowboys have "not experienced a large number of problems from tailgating" at owner Jerry Jones' new $1.1 billion stadium, team spokesman Brett Daniels says. "We understand the league guidelines and try to work with them as much as we can. But we have to make some exceptions."

The Broncos don't "disagree" with shorter tailgating, says Mac Freeman, senior vice president of business development. But they "haven't seen tailgating really cause binge drinking" around Invesco Field at Mile High.

Other clubs defer to the public entities that own and operate their home stadiums. The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority — which operates Giants Stadium, the only venue to host two NFL teams — cut tailgating before Jets and New York Giants game to five hours from seven in 2008 and sees no need to reduce it further, authority spokesman John Samerjan says.

The Cardinals, Bears, Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers say cutting tailgating to 3½ hours would create traffic nightmares.

"Our local law enforcement agencies have strongly recommended to us to open our lots five hours prior to the games due to traffic patterns," says Bills spokesman Scott Berchtold.

Time limits only penalize tailgaters who are more interested in food and friendship than they are in booze, says Jets fan Victor Russomano. "The problem's not with tailgaters; it's with irresponsible people."

But Chris Morreale, 40, a tailgater outside Atlanta's Georgia Dome, says: "Definitely we do a lot of drinking. I'm not going to lie to you."

•Smaller beer sizes. There are no limits on how many times a customer can return to concession stands to buy beer. But clubs say their servers are trained to spot fans who've had too much to drink and the employees are allowed to refuse service.

The Cardinals now sell the league's biggest beer at 24 ounces. But state regulations allow customers to buy only 32 ounces of beer at a time, says team spokesman Mark Dalton. So if a fan wants two beers, they have to order two 16-ounce beers.

The Redskins and Dolphins sell 22-ounce beers. The larger size "decreases in some ways the amount some people can drink," says Redskins spokesman Karl Swanson, because it "cuts down the number of times they come back to the concession stand."

The Dolphins are "reviewing cup sizes," says Todd Boyan, general manager at Miami's Land Shark Stadium.

Serving limits won't work any hardships on New Orleans Saints fan Norman Norfleet. "I take care of mine out here," says the 43-year-old U.S. Army sergeant with a laugh between sips of beer on the roof of the Louisiana Superdome's parking lot.

•Police patrols/DUI checkpoints. At the league's suggestion, teams are working more closely with local law enforcement and alcohol control agencies to patrol parking lots and conduct sobriety checkpoints for possible drunk drivers leaving stadiums.

Police stage random DUI checks around the Bills' Ralph Wilson Stadium, says Bills spokesman Berchtold. The Seahawks use undercover officers to monitor "hot spot areas" at Qwest Field, team spokeswoman Lavender says. Some alcohol agencies are sending underage interns to concession stands to check if they'll be served alcohol, says NFL security official Miller.

Some fans salute the league's attempt to police fan misconduct.

Watching fans drinking around San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, Ashley Bennett says the changes were overdue. "I've never seen anything like this," she says. "Just a lot of really drunk people, just really hammered, not even being able to stand up straight."

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