Industry taps into beer games

Brewers, others capitalize on popularity, but college leaders worry about binge drinking


PHILADELPHIA -- The bar is packed, the floor is wet, and dozens of glassy-eyed young people are squeezed around tables trying to lob pingpong balls into cups of beer.

It is the final round of a beer pong championship, sponsored by a maker of portable beer pong tables, and all across the bar, as one team scores points, the other happily guzzles beer.

"It's awesome," said Chris Shannon, 22, a senior at Drexel University here. "If you win, you win. If you lose, you drink. There's no negative."

Drinking games have been around since Dionysus. But a whole new industry has taken off around them, making the games more popular, more intense and more dangerous, according to college administrators who say the games are just thin cover for binge drinking.

Some colleges have banned the games on campus, but that has just driven them elsewhere. Many bars now hold beer pong tournaments like the one in Philadelphia, and some even have leagues and keep baseball-like statistics.

Urban Outfitters stocks a beer pong kit called Bombed and rules for other games. In January, thousands of players are expected at the first World Series of Beer Pong, sponsored by a beer pong accessories company and held on the outskirts of -- where else? -- Las Vegas.

This past summer, Anheuser-Busch unveiled a game it calls Bud Pong. The company, which makes Budweiser, is promoting Bud Pong tournaments and providing Bud Pong tables, balls and glasses to distributors in 47 markets, including college towns such as Oswego, N.Y., and Clemson, S.C.

"It's catching on like wildfire," said spokeswoman Francine Katz. "We created it as an icebreaker for young adults to meet each other."

Brewers such as Anheuser-Busch have made "responsible drinking" a matter of corporate philosophy, partly as an answer to criticism that they market to youth. But Katz said Bud Pong was not intended for underage drinkers because promotions were held in bars, not on campuses.

And it does not promote binge drinking, she said, because official rules call for water to be used, not beer. The hope is that those on the sidelines enjoy a Bud.

On the ground, though, it may be a different story. At the Esso Club near Clemson University, Jessica Twilley, a bartender, said she had worked at several Bud Pong events and had "never seen anyone playing with water."

"It's always beer," Twilley said. "It's just like any other beer pong."

When told about the Esso Club, Katz responded that her information was that the club used water.

Budweiser is not the only brand using games to sell alcohol. One recent Miller campaign featured spin-the-bottle, and its distributors have promoted beer pong tournaments as well, although the company says it has no corporate strategy to market the game.

Henry Wechsler, director of the College Alcohol Study at the Harvard School of Public Health, was "aghast that companies who posture themselves as promoting responsible drinking promote drinking games, which by their nature involve heavy drinking."

As for the Bud Pong water defense, Wechsler said, "Why would alcohol companies promote games that involve drinking water? It's preposterous."

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