SBJ/March 5-11, 2012/In-Depth

Teams toast the benefits of beer category

MLS franchises have taken advantage of the ability to strike local sponsorship deals in the beer category.

Beer is among the latest, and most lucrative, sponsor categories to be untethered from larger leaguewide deals, a development MLS and team executives call a sign of progress. Insurance, cars and soft drinks (Dr Pepper Snapple Group’s exclusive pouring rights at the new Houston Dynamo stadium serve as a prime example) have also been divided, giving teams the chance to generate more revenue and collaborate on local and regional promotions.

The Portland Timbers struck a deal for homegrown microbrewer Widmer Brothers to be the franchise’s official craft beer.
Photo by: Portland Timbers
Budweiser and its parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, began sponsoring MLS when the league started in 1996. At the time, the company’s imprimatur gave the fledgling soccer league crucial credibility. By the time the beermaker negotiated its latest agreement, a four-year contract that began with the 2011 season, MLS had gained enough clout to exclude local beer rights.

That gave teams such as the expansion Portland Timbers a key category for local sponsor sales. Portland struck a deal with Budweiser as its domestic beer and added homegrown microbrewer Widmer Brothers as the franchise’s official craft beer.

The beer category ranks among Portland’s top local partnerships, said Mike Golub, Timbers chief operating officer. He declined to disclose specific terms. “What was really important to us as we were launching the franchise was the promotional power that both really bring,” Golub said, noting that Widmer produced a Timbers-themed seasonal ale and Budweiser put the team logo on local delivery trucks.

Local beer sponsorships for MLS clubs sell in the range of $250,000 to $300,000 annually, industry sources say.
Widmer Brothers produced a Timbers-themed seasonal ale.
Photo by: Portland Timbers
Terms can vary based on market size and how extensive the company’s involvement is with the team at the stadium and in other marketing aspects. All 19 MLS teams now have local deals in the beer category (see chart).

In Chicago, the Fire had a deal with Miller Lite for a party deck at the team’s home stadium, but expanded the agreement to encompass broader local marketing rights once the new MLS agreement kicked in.

Chicago also works with Crown Imports, the joint venture that promotes and distributes Corona and Modelo, among other brands, said Dave Beck, Fire vice president of corporate partnerships.

Anheuser-Busch may no longer be the sponsor of all MLS teams, but it remains a strong player nonetheless at the local level. Ten teams have sponsorships with A-B. The company is also a founding partner at The Home Depot Center, home of Chivas USA and the Los Angeles Galaxy. Last season, Grupo Modelo signed a deal to put the Corona Extra logo on Chivas USA jerseys. In Canada, the Vancouver and Montreal MLS teams are tied to A-B, too.

The shift reflects a new stature for MLS, executives say.

“The commercial value for a partner today is vastly different than what it was 17 years ago [when MLS started],” said David Wright, MLS senior vice president of global sponsorship. “And that value has led to the evolution of this model.”

Local beer deals in MLS

Club Beer partner
Columbus Crew Anheuser-Busch
Chicago Fire MillerCoors, Crown Imports
Chivas USA Modelo (Crown Imports)
Colorado Rapids Coors Light
D.C. United Corona
FC Dallas Anheuser-Busch
Houston Dynamo Anheuser-Busch
Sporting KC Anheuser-Busch
Los Angeles Galaxy Corona
Montreal Impact Anheuser-Busch
New England Revolution Quality Beverage
New York Red Bulls MillerCoors
Portland Timbers Anheuser-Busch, Widmer Brothers
Philadelphia Union Anheuser-Busch, Miller
Real Salt Lake Anheuser-Busch
Seattle Sounders Anheuser-Busch
San Jose Earthquakes Corona
Toronto FC Carlsberg
Vancouver Whitecaps Anheuser-Busch
Source: Major League Soccer
The current four-year contract Anheuser-Busch signed with Soccer United Marketing, the commercial arm of MLS, is worth a total of $10 million-plus for the soccer league. The national U.S. and Mexican teams are included in the deal.
Anheuser-Busch has rights to all league and team logos. In addition to Budweiser, which remains a frequent advertiser during nationally televised games, Anheuser-Busch expects to keep using the MLS sponsorship to promote its Chelada beers.

“Soccer United Marketing wanted to rework their revenue structure, not unlike NFL, MLB, you name it,” said Brad Brown, Anheuser-Busch vice president of sports and entertainment marketing. “Where there is a combination of league assets and rights and then the ability for the local teams to sell local access and rights as well. Given our commitment to the growth of soccer, the key demographics that it hits for us, it was still a very viable option for us to pursue a league deal.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.
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