Critical Drinking

Put Me in, Coach — Examining a Future of Sports and Beer

For years, sports fans have known the kind of advertising they’ll get when settling in to watch their game of choice: luxury cars, credit cards, erectile dysfunction drugs, and beer.

During this year’s climactic finish to baseball’s World Series, fans probably didn’t expect to see promotions for Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA during prime time of a decisive game seven. But there it was, literally front and center, for “Suggestion Box,” a 15-second spot touting the beer’s near-perfect BeerAdvocate score of 97 and ideas from actors-turned-employees about how to get those three extra points needed for the perfect 100. The proposals, viewers were led to believe, are too scandalous to read on-air.

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"Not perfect, but close," the commercial’s tagline read, prominently framing a freshly poured beer, slogan, and numeric rating, the latter pointing out quantitative quality. Another 15-second ad, fittingly titled “Celebration,” completed the brand’s first national coming out party later that night, again utilizing the same catchphrase.

Combined, the two ads likely cost around $650,000, based on estimated prices reported by Brewbound. And perhaps the price tag wasn’t only justified by gaining exposure to new beer drinkers (and presumably customers enamored with high ratings), but also sending a message. For a platform once solely dominated by the likes of Budweiser, Miller, Coors and their family of brands, someone else has big ambitions.

“A watershed (though subtle) moment of craft beer in the mainstream,” journalist Josh Noel noted on Twitter.

“The very notion that IPA as a style would grow to the point where any brand would find it worthy of a national ad is significant,” replied Scott Metzger, owner of Texas’ Freetail Brewing and Brewers Association board member.

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To be fair, businesses like Kona and New Belgium beat Ballast Point to the punch by several years, running less expensive ads in 2014 outside of nationally-televised sports events, but this recent decision still resonates. IPA—the insatiable beast that simply can’t be stopped—makes the most sense in terms of a leading brand or style when unveiling yourself to the country’s consciousness. And in this age of hops and haze, it’s also an ideal introduction to separate yourself from the adjunct lagers that have dominated airwaves for decades.

But there was also a unique wrinkle to beer’s advertising during the broadcast, which also included new commercials for Samuel Adams and Twisted Tea, alongside a lineup of Modelo, Pacifico, and Budweiser’s 1933 Repeal Reserve. While collecting 28 million total viewers, the World Series may have not provided the audience these brands want, but with one they simply need.

From 2012 to 2014, the average age of a World Series viewer increased from 53.4 to 55.6, the highest ever tracked. That figure during baseball’s 2016 regular season was even higher at 57 years old. These are ages more in line with drinkers you’d expect focused on heritage macro brands, or perhaps Sam Adams, not one full of dads extolling the virtues of the highest-rated IPAs on BeerAdvocate.

Meanwhile, millennials, who made up 29% of the drinking age population last year, account for about 41% of weekly beer drinkers and 57% of weekly craft beer drinkers, according to a U.S. Yankelovich MONITOR survey. They’re probably the group these brands should really be targeting with advertisements seen during games or elsewhere.

Which ultimately hints at a secondary and more long term story beyond the initial excitement of seeing craft (or “crafty”) beer appear during baseball’s championship: it’s time for beer to reevaluate its marketing strategy when it comes to sports.

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Truly, we are a nation of beer lovers, and for many, that’s tied directly to athletics. Last year, a survey from The Harris Poll showed that beer is the beverage most likely consumed while watching any American sport, whether in person or on television, among regular drinkers. In the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, just more than 49 million cases of beer are sold, the sixth-highest period of the year, just behind Halloween and Thanksgiving. Even during the NFL’s regular season, beer sales in some bars and restaurants jumped a third before Week 1 games this year.

Literally and figuratively, beer is in our blood when it comes to celebrating sport. As “craft” beer in all its forms continues to expand its reach, it makes sense that the national brands with financial ability to promote themselves on TV should be thinking outside traditional broadcasts of baseball and football, which have had issues with ratings outside of their aging viewership.

According to an ongoing study done in partnership with SportsBusiness Journal and Magna Global, the median age of viewers across 13 of 16 major sports on broadcast and cable TV are aging faster than the overall U.S. population. Only women's tennis has seen a decline in average viewer age since 2000, while professional basketball (from 40 to 42) and soccer (from 39 to 40) have both held a relatively steady—and the lowest—average viewer age over the past decade.

Promoting beer brands during MLB or NFL games will never go away—the overall audience is too big to ignore. But in terms of more curated advertising, there can be more consideration toward succeeding with millennial consumers—and, soon, Gen Z—who have better built-in BS detectors than previous generations when it comes to advertising and selling ideas of authenticity.

Focusing on this demographic isn’t foolish. Historically, beer has skewed toward a younger audience. In two peer-reviewed studies led by the Alcohol Research Group, an academically-focused center that studies alcohol consumption and trends, analysis showed that as drinkers got older, beer was less favored. In separate papers published in 2004 and 2012, findings showed that by the time someone hit their mid-to-late 40s, preference toward beer changed for the worse. Americans were found to drink it less, but also keep steady or slightly increase their intake of wine and spirits. A 2014 poll by Gallup and Goldman Sachs provided a similar outcome, with beer remaining the least-preferred alcohol for respondents 50 or older over a 20 year span of surveying.

This is hardly an ideal situation for advertising during the World Series, or audiences for the NFL (average viewer age: 50), college football or basketball (52), or the NHL (49). You may only be as old as you feel, but the numbers show that liquid enhancement to that feeling isn’t coming as much by beer.

Which is also why the messaging behind Ballast Point’s World Series ad—orchestrated by parent company Constellation Brands—still matters, even if shown to a less-than-ideal audience. By the time it aired on TV, the two 15-second spots had already racked up about six million views on YouTube, a platform that also skews toward millennials. The fact that Constellation spent more than half a million dollars on advertising is news on its own, a shot across the bow of sorts toward players like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors—companies that have long held sports as an arena of their own. But in recent years, Constellation has proven to be rather unstoppable in growth, so it was only a matter of time until it got called up to the big leagues.

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The contrast of beer ads shown during the World Series may also foreshadow a playbook breweries can use moving forward. Ballast Point’s promotion of Sculpin was lightly produced, relying more on their presentation of BeerAdvocate’s score for the beer than humor or editing. It also utilizes aspects today’s consumer relies on and relates to: online reviews are seen as valuable as personal recommendations, beer shoppers use technology to better understand their options and, fittingly, scores have a useful psychological impact, creating more curiosity and influencing purchase decisions.

“Which would you rather drink, a beer that somebody loved, or a beer that nobody loved?” asked Duke professor Jack Soll, analyzing the impact of displayed beer ratings in All About Beer. By merely suggesting its near-perfect score, with a tongue-in-cheek assist, Sculpin is already different.

Other brands focused more on what we’ve seen in the past. Budweiser’s Repeal Reserve was about telling drinkers what the beer is and what it means, and Sam Adam’s new slogan to “fill your glass” and find greater meaning in life (along with their beer, of course) mirrors Michelob Ultra’s “work and play” branding or the encouragement to “climb on” with Coors Light. If brands want to highlight themselves in a crowded marketplace, they need to start calling audibles, not the same plays that have been used over and over.

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Which is why a reexamination of marketing around sports is also needed. As those watching events on TV get older, advertisements are missing out on their prime demographic.

“Cord Cutters” and “Cord Nevers,” people who give up cable TV access or never sign up, skew young, with more than half of U.S. “Nevers” aged 18-34. Combine this with the shifting age of people who still do watch sports, it suggests that leagues like the NBA and MLS, along with streaming services carrying professional sports that include ESPN and Amazon, offer potential for breweries and brands aimed at younger drinking-age demographics. In a recent survey of 2,000 senior sports industry executives, Turnkey Sports found the NBA to be cited as the "hottest property" for sponsors, beating the NFL, which sat second. MLS finished third. It’s no coincidence that basketball and soccer, two sports with the youngest ages of TV viewers, are held in that regard.

But the reality is that only a few companies are relevant nationwide or have the money to move into this space, which is why craft beer should maximize what has already worked so well by creating more intimate connections with fans, extending successful relationships beyond the taproom.

This has been perfectly executed for Major League Soccer, where teams in New York City, Orlando, and Columbus, Ohio have locally-sourced beer made in partnership with nearby breweries and teams’ official fan groups. In Minnesota, Surly Brewing hosts pre-game parties for Minnesota United and Widmer Brothers was a “Founding Partner” of the Portland Timbers’ first season in 2011. Oskar Blues acts as an official partner of the American Outlaws, the U.S. national team’s supporters’ group. Examples like this span the entire league and country.

According to a 2016 survey by Public Policy Polling, MLS fans are young (nearly 2/3 are under 45) and diverse (57% female, 48% Hispanic). These happen to be things the Brewers Association recognizes as valuable to the growth of craft beer.

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There’s also the 800-pound, motion-captured gorilla in the room with esports, where Bud Light has already planted a flag. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of a gamer is 35, with 39% of the esports audience between 25 and 34, per Esports Observer. Many are already seeing this virtual battlefield as a source of serious revenue as video game competition is considered for future Olympics and owners of professional sports franchises across the NFL, MLB, and NBA buy into esports leagues.

As pointed out on GBH by Oliver Gray, the age of esports players and viewers—a good number of them under 21—presents an ethical challenge for beer entering this marketplace. But the rewards are enticing. It’s a space not yet fully claimed, one featuring young, male fans with average household incomes from $58,000-$76,000, perfect for promoting more affordable luxury goods like craft beer.

“Even if the kids can’t (or wouldn’t) drink, that’s still a lot of exposure to a brand from an impressionable age,” Gray wrote. “Bud Light is likely winning a large chunk of share of mind for gamers, especially given that no other beer companies have tried marketing within the industry, which might translate into sales when those same gamers hit drinking age.”

Advertising has never been a large part of craft beer or its ethos, instead relying on a growing fanbase and word of mouth to entice new drinkers toward fuller flavored beer. But as the country surpasses 6,000 breweries and things continue to get tighter for regional and national brands, space traditionally held exclusively by the largest corporations is now diversifying. Whether on TV or digitally, there are ample opportunities to recognize and target audiences relevant to pushing craft beyond its roughly 12% market share of U.S. beer. The challenge is going about it in a smart and effective way.

It’s time, then, to get in the game.

Words by Bryan Roth Graphics by, Mike Duesenberg