More Wales, less ales?

Mark Leyshon | September 2019 | 8 minutes

On the eve of the rugby union World Cup Mark Leyshon, based in our Cardiff office, reflects on his recent experience of Wales’ Principality Stadium’s new alcohol-free zone.

“And in the bars on level three the ‘joy machines’ are already pumping out twelve pints at a time… The whole stadium, from top to bottom… is loud with expectation, occasion and alcohol.”

So writes Owen Sheers, describing the build up to a rugby fixture at Wales’ national stadium, in his 2013 book, Calon: A journey to the heart of Welsh rugby.

But that was then, and this is now. From this summer onwards, the Principality Stadium in Cardiff will no longer be awash with booze. Or, at least, one part of the stadium won’t be.

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) has confirmed that, following a successful trial last autumn, part of the North Stand will be a permanent ‘alcohol-free zone’, where fans will not be allowed to bring alcohol to their seats.

The decision comes on the back of increasing concerns in recent years about the impact of ‘drunken behaviour’ at matches, which has resulted in a number of high profile, unsavoury incidents in the stadium. There has been increasingly disgruntlement amongst some fans that their rugby experience has been ruined by others who appear more interested in ordering their next tray of beer than watching the rugby drama unfolding in front of them.

Indeed, the 17 main bars dotted around the ground and the amount of heavy drinking led to one rugby journalist to describe the stadium as “the world’s biggest Wetherspoons”.

Wales’ national game, its national stadium, nor it’s governing body, the WRU, can tolerate prolonged bad publicity and unhappy fans for too long. And so, the alcohol-free zone has been born.

The Welsh Rugby Union has confirmed that, following a successful trial last autumn, part of the North Stand will be a permanent ‘alcohol-free zone’

I was fortunate to attend Wales’ international friendly against England on 17 August, and sat in the new zone. Two weeks later I attended Wales’ game against Ireland, this time in a section where drinking in view of the pitch is still permitted.

My experiences at the two matches couldn’t have been more different. In the alcohol-free zone, I enjoyed an unobstructed and uninterrupted view of the match; at the Ireland game I was in and out of my seat like a jinking fly-half in order to allow fellow attendees to go back and forth to the bars and toilets. The sheer movement of people led to one nearby fan remarking that it was like trying to watch a game of rugby in a shopping arcade. And a boozy shopping arcade at that.

In the ‘drinking’ seats, I witnessed a man being physically ejected by stewards for drunken behaviour, and the fan responsible for the pitch invasion that interrupted play in the first half came from our section of the ground; he appeared to have made more than a couple of visits to the bar.

The WRU argue that the principle behind the alcohol-free zone is one of choice: those fans who have complained about the negative impact of other people’s drinking on their match-day experience now have somewhere they can watch the game in peace (providing there are no more than 4,500 of them), while others can have their fill of alcohol.

Even though the alcohol-free zone is a welcome step, let’s not pretend that the alcohol industry’s shackles on rugby in Wales, and elsewhere, have been broken.

The principle behind the alcohol-free zone is one of choice: those fans who have complained about the negative impact of other people’s drinking on their match-day experience now have somewhere they can watch the game in peace, while others can have their fill of alcohol.

Big drinking is prevalent in many of the UK’s rugby stadiums, including Twickenham, which has the capacity to sell 160,000 pints and had suffered reports of alcohol-related disorder.

A quick internet search shows that 11 different alcohol producers sponsor, or are official partners of, top flight rugby union clubs/regions in England and Wales, including the likes of Thatcher’s, Carlsberg and Worthington.

The Pro 14 league is sponsored by Guinness, as is the 6 Nations Championship, while Heineken sponsors the European Champions Cup and is an official partner of the forthcoming World Cup in Japan. The latter was reportedly “horrified” at the prospect of one of the tournament’s stadia having only one bar at its ground, promising to rectify this so that “no one goes thirsty at the World Cup”.

Such partnerships are clearly lucrative to the industry, and British pubs reportedly sold an extra 25 million pints during the last World Cup. New Zealand seems set to change its licensing laws for the 2019 tournament, which currently don’t allow publicans to open during times when matches are to be broadcast, and the same could happen in England and Wales. This mirrors what happened here during the 2014 football World Cup held in Brazil, when the Home Office agreed to extend pub opening times during England’s matches.

When it comes to public health, alcohol companies’ sponsorship of rugby, and sporting events more generally, is problematic. Research shows a positive association between exposure to alcohol marketing and alcohol consumption. The correlation is particularly apparent among younger people, increasing the likelihood that they will start to drink or increase their consumption if already drinking.

Perhaps one cause for optimism is the changing role that drinking plays in the lives of elite rugby players. The ‘play hard, party hard’ approach of previous generations has been replaced by greater professionalism, epitomised by the Welsh team in the 2011 World Cup through its self-imposed alcohol ban, even if high-profile incidents still crop up in the media from time to time.

That said, while heavy drinking may be less prevalent amongst our rugby stars my recent experiences tell me that, for many fans, alcohol is still very much front and centre – whether they want it to be or not.