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Volume 21 No. 1
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A-B stays in soccer with MLS renewal

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Anheuser-Busch has signed a four-year extension to its founding partnership with Major League Soccer, but for the first time the beermaker has given up exclusive local rights to MLS teams.

The deal also includes four-year extensions with the U.S. and Mexican national teams. Industry sources peg the total value of the deal, which was negotiated by Anheuser-Busch and Soccer United Marketing, at more than $10 million.

For the first time, Anheuser-Busch has given up local rights to MLS teams.
According to Mark Wright, vice president of media, sports and entertainment marketing with Anheuser-Busch, the beermaker will continue to promote its Budweiser Chelada brands at MLS games, Budweiser at U.S. national men’s team events, and Bud Light at U.S. national women’s team and Mexican national team games in the United States. Budweiser Chelada will not have a presence at those events.

“Coming off the [2010] World Cup, interest is at a real high for soccer in the United States,” Wright said. “We feel MLS is well-positioned with new stadiums and two new franchises, and it makes all the sense in the world to continue.”

Wright added that A-B’s “significant share in the Latino segment” influenced the brand’s continued support of the Mexican national team. With MLS, the beermaker targets both the Latino and general market.

The deal comes as A-B fights to retain its stronghold in mainstream American sports. In February, rival MillerCoors and Molson Coors replaced Anheuser-Busch as the official beer of the NHL after 16 years. In December, A-B dropped a lawsuit against Major League Baseball claiming that MLB backed out of a multiyear extension. The two subsequently agreed to a multiyear extension.

In its soccer renewal, Anheuser-Busch will retain media spots and signage at all nationally televised MLS games and will retain use of all league and team marks. It also will continue its presenting sponsorship role of the MLS Pub Program and the “Golden Boot” award, which goes to the player who scores the most regular-season goals. But A-B is losing exclusivity within local markets, something the league asked for during the negotiations after receiving continued pressure from clubs.

“Our clubs were really clamoring for the ability to go deeper in negotiations with local beer companies because they want to grow the young adult fan base,” said Kathy Carter, president of Soccer United Marketing. “Anheuser-Busch recognized this and allowed [MLS] to do that.”

The league informed clubs it would be opening up local rights several months before signing the renewal with A-B. In February, Chivas USA negotiated a partnership with Grupo Modelo that puts the company’s Corona Extra brand on the team’s jersey. The Chicago Fire, which has had a separate stadium deal with MillerCoors for three years, will extend that relationship into a local partnership for 2011. In December, the Portland Timbers announced a founding partnership with local brewer Widmer Brothers, which had sponsored the team during its time in the United Soccer Leagues.

“Widmer has been a partner with us for many seasons during our second-division years,” said Timbers COO Mike Golub. “They have deep local roots and rich history.”

Anheuser-Busch currently has local partnerships with Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Columbus and Kansas City, as well as a facility partnership with the Home Depot Center near Los Angeles and Canadian deals with Vancouver and Montreal, which makes its MLS debut in 2012. Carter pointed to the league’s partnerships with Volkswagen and Allstate Insurance as other MLS deals that allow teams to negotiate same-category deals at the local level.

During the 2010-11 offseason, the league also renewed deals with Adidas, American Airlines, Home Depot, Makita and Xbox 360.

Anheuser-Busch has been the official beer sponsor of every FIFA World Cup since 1986, and its roots in American soccer stretch to 1987, when it signed its first deal with the U.S. national team. In 1995, the company became the first major American brand to come on board with MLS, which played its first season a year later, and in 2004, A-B extended its partnership with SUM to include the Mexican national team.

Premier Partnerships’ Randy Bernstein, who was the league’s first chief marketing officer, said the fledgling league’s partnership with Anheuser-Busch gave it a much-needed boost of credibility at the time. The league’s first crop of corporate partners included Bic, M&M Mars, Honda, MasterCard, Pepsi and AT&T. The initial Anheuser-Busch deal gave Budweiser signage and branding deals in-stadium, as well as jersey rights with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

“It was tremendous for us because so many companies looked to Anheuser-Busch as the leader in their sports marketing efforts,” Bernstein said. “They weren’t going to lock us down for a long-term contract if they thought we would be here today, gone tomorrow.”