Colleges chug beer dollars
The wall that used to exist between beer marketers and college sports has crumbled under the weight of the schools’ need for more revenue and an enhanced game experience.
Colleges are pouring beer at their games, they’re advertising beer on their in-stadium signage and media, they’re licensing their marks to beer companies, and they’re cashing checks from Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors and even imports like Dos Equis and Corona, making big-time college football a fresh, fertile battleground for big-spending beer companies.
College events used to be off-limits for beer marketers because of the underage audience on campus. Schools didn’t want to look like they were condoning alcohol consumption, so they worked with beer sponsors to create messaging around “drinking responsibly.” That approach has helped the beer companies, especially the two giants in the category, find a comfort level with the schools they sponsor. ABI now owns the marketing rights at close to 60 colleges, where its Bud Light brand is typically promoted. At the 40 schools where MillerCoors has bought marketing rights in the last five years, the company mostly hawks the Coors Light brand.
|Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Bud Light has partnered with Texas A&M.
In all, the number of school marks and intellectual property used in beer marketing are at an all-time high, industry experts say, as is the media spend by beer brands on college football.
“The level of comfort is getting a little bit more, school by school, every year,” said Nick Kelly, senior director of experiential marketing at ABI. “I don’t think we are ever going to see one fell swoop where every school opts in, but more and more are.”
It’s not just the marketing that’s changing. SportsBusiness Journal research counts 36 colleges that will sell beer in their on-campus stadiums, and another 14 more that pour at off-campus venues.
First Look podcast, with beer discussion beginning at the 8:40 mark:
Another indication that beer is seeping deeper into the culture of college events: The NCAA will start making beer available at more of its championships. The normally conservative governing body of college sports already sells beer at its baseball, softball, football and lacrosse championships. Wrestling, volleyball and ice hockey are likely next by 2018, and it’s just a matter of time before beer is being sold at every round of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
“Ultimately, and I mean sooner than later, the vast majority of schools will sell beer in their concessions,” said veteran collegiate marketer Rick Jones of Charleston, S.C.-based FishBait Marketing, whose clients include Capital One and the Atlantic Coast Conference. “TV money and a lot of the other collegiate revenues are flat. Schools are looking for new revenue and [beer at concession stands] will be a significant new giant income stream.”
|The University of Texas has split the category with Corona and MillerCoors.|
But it’s not just a financial issue. It’s also a matter of getting fans to the game and keeping them there at a time when college football attendance is sagging. The average FBS crowd of 43,106 during the 2016 season marked the sixth straight year on the decline.
Selling beer in-venue is considered by many administrators as a way of providing a better fan experience, or at least an experience that will keep them inside the stadium longer.
“Beer is naturally part of the game-day experience, whether you’re on premise or at home,” said Adam Dettman, MillerCoors’ director of sports and entertainment marketing. “Schools have never been under more pressure, both from the revenue side and the fan experience. How do you motivate fans to come to the games? How can we help educate them on that?”
Just look at Texas and Texas A&M, a pair of schools that each have more than 100,000 seats to fill on game day.
It’s no wonder the Longhorns earlier this month split their beer category so their rights holder, IMG College, could sell a domestic deal to MillerCoors and an import deal to Corona in a combination of agreements worth close to $5 million annually. Corona’s rights at Texas include on-site activation, customized beer tap handles and glass pints combining the logos of the Longhorns and the beer.
“This wasn’t as much about college sports as it was having a platform for a region where we are growing by double digits,” said John Alvarado, Constellation Brands’ vice president of brand marketing for Corona.
But it was another sign that college football is attracting the attention of domestics and imports.
“What was a second-tier category for us is now a top-10 category,” Andrew Judelson, IMG College’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, said of beer.
For Texas, the school liked the affiliation with the Mexican brand, which is the best-selling import in the U.S. Latinos represent 39 percent of the population in Texas, which has the second-most Hispanics of any state, behind only California.
“Think about where we live,” said Chris Plonsky, the Longhorns’ athletic director for women’s sports and chief marketer for athletics. “It seems like a natural progression. The brand fits nicely, and it will have a presence across all of our sports where we can market to the Hispanic community. I think we can also learn a lot about the way this brand markets.”
Down the road in College Station, Texas A&M’s rights holder, Learfield, renewed with ABI last year for significantly more rights and more money. Their previous arrangement was good for media only, but the renewal is much more integrated, including naming rights for the Bud Light brand to premium spaces inside the football and baseball stadiums.
|Dos Equis became the CFP’s official beer in 2015.
So far, there doesn’t appear to be much appetite from ABI and MillerCoors to put college marks on primary packaging — cans and bottles — even though some of their contracts now include the rights. Bud Light was stung in 2009 when the brand used school colors from 27 colleges, without logos, on Bud Light cans. It prompted immediate objections from the schools and the “Fan Cans” were pulled off the shelves before the end of the first season.
“The revenue [imperatives] are clear, but the game experience is also important here,” said Dan Donnelly, the former director of national broadcast for Anheuser-Busch, who’s now executive vice president and managing director of Publicis Sports, which helped negotiate Dos Equis’ CFP sponsorship with ESPN, the CFP rights holder. “If you are used to going to a professional sporting event, and having beer responsibly is part of that, then the college environment is at a disadvantage.”
The quest for new revenue is not limited to college campuses. Broadcast rights holders, such as ESPN, which committed $7.3 billion over 12 years to the CFP and its New Year’s Six bowl games, need to monetize those deals as well. Thus, the catalyst for sponsorships like the Dos Equis deal.
“You’ve got schools doing this now and the more that do, the more comfortable it seems with the general public,” said ESPN’s Nick Dawson, vice president of programming and acquisitions.
So, Purdue will sell beer, but it won’t permit its rights holder, Learfield, to sell beer sponsorships, an arrangement that several in the industry found curious.
“We need to give people more of a reason to come to the games in addition, of course, to winning,” said Tom Schott, Purdue’s longtime communications chief. The Boilermakers haven’t been to a bowl since the 2012 season and it was 2000 when Purdue last won the Big Ten. “We’re not even sure what the revenue will be, but [beer] is an amenity we can provide.”
The marketing affiliation between beer and college athletics isn’t just an issue at the highest levels of the power five conferences. It’s a conversation at schools of every size.
If they don’t sell beer at their own concessions, that’s now under discussion. If they don’t permit breweries to use college logos and names to market beer, that too is increasingly under consideration.
“I’ve seen more activity in the category in the last two years than in the previous 10,” said Roy Seinfeld, Learfield’s executive vice president of national sales. “We still run into some resistance every year, but dominoes are falling and things are loosening up.”
Bob Dittrich, vice president at Genesco Sports Enterprises, works with MillerCoors on its college program. He’s seen the tide turn over the last five years since MillerCoors entered the college space.
“Schools that five years ago were saying they’re not interested are now saying, ‘We’re interested, what can we get?’ It’s been a gradual thaw,” Dittrich said.
At least four schools — Colorado State, LSU, Louisiana-Lafayette and Tulane — license their marks to local brewers, who use a school logo on its labels, packaging and marketing (see related story). Tulane is the most recent. It sold its “Angry Wave” athletics logo to NOLA Brewing Co. for use on a new product: Green Wave Beer.
The private school in New Orleans, which is represented by IMG College, already had a sponsorship deal with Crescent Crown distributors. That arrangement provided Tulane marketing rights to Yuengling, Dos Equis and NOLA, through the distributor, so NOLA was already invested as a sponsor.
But just below the surface with every beer sponsorship, even with the requisite “drink responsibly” and “21 means 21” messaging, is the controversial topic of underage drinking and whether beer marketing at a college football game is appropriate, given the on-campus issues with binge drinking and alcohol abuse. The “drink responsibly” tags carry a much higher profile in the brewers’ collegiate marketing deals than their pro sports sponsorships.
“There are definitely more schools open to discussing the beer category, but the messaging has to be more overtly about drinking responsibly than with other properties,” said Dan Parise, vice president and managing director at Scout Sports & Entertainment, which counts Corona among its clients.
Louisiana Rep. Cedric Glover publicly objected earlier this year to the association between some of the state’s colleges and beer sponsors.
“This is wrong,” Glover told Louisiana media. “Why would we have wanted to officially license and brand an alcoholic beverage to a school?”
Officials at the University of Connecticut experienced pushback in 2014 when an outdoor billboard promoting Coors Light appeared with a Huskies logo and the phrase “Huskies love the cold.” UConn President Susan Herbst answered the backlash from fans by having the billboard removed, saying in a statement: “UConn cannot appear to endorse drinking among our students.”
That same year, the University of Illinois had similar billboards removed, saying that it was OK for the Coors Light brand to be used with Fighting Illini marks at retail, but not on billboards.
“It’s the money, period,” said Todd Turner, a former athletic director at UConn in the late 1980s and other schools before becoming a college consultant. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the right thing or the wrong thing anymore. It’s all about the revenue.
“Schools avoided it historically because it didn’t fit the culture on campus, especially with all of the drinking issues, but money has flipped all that. College administrators are drawn into competing for the marketing dollars. It shouldn’t be that way, but it’s the world we live in today.”
“We’ve got 60 colleges and they all offer something different,” ABI’s Kelly said.
|Texas’ beer deals are worth close to $5 million annually.
The SEC has been adamant about not selling any alcoholic beverages at its athletic venues, but the conference does allow it in club seats and suites, at least one of which is sponsored by a spirits brand — Woodford Reserve Club at Kentucky’s Kroger Field. Other schools, such as LSU and Missouri, have experimented with selling beer within beer gardens just outside the stadium, which enables them to rake in the revenue while staying within the bounds of the conference rules.
Many schools see beer sales they can control as a better alternative to the binge drinking in the parking lot before the game or at halftime. There are still many schools that permit “pass-outs,” which allow fans to exit the stadium and then return after presumably going to the car to reload on drinks. Allowing sales inside the venue is believed to be a more effective way of managing alcohol consumption and curbing binge drinking, an outcome that West Virginia touted when it started selling beer inside its football stadium six years ago.
Mike Aresco, commissioner of the American Athletic, said his conference sells beer at its football championship.
“More schools are saying ‘yes’ to beer sales, and revenue is clearly an issue,” Aresco said. “But there’s also a feeling that you can manage it better if you sell beer at your stadium with various safeguards, rather than have people drink outside, come back in, and then run out at halftime.”
On the marketing side, beer sponsors typically operate under a set of guidelines that dictate how the school’s brand is presented.
At California, beer brands must refer to their relationship with the school as sponsor, not partner. Cal’s marks can be used at bars, grocery stores and restaurants, but not on billboards. The Golden Bears’ marks must be spaced out from the beer’s logo by certain distances. And the school always has veto power.
Other schools are not as persnickety. Oregon State, for example, has a fermentation science major that feeds a number of its graduates into the rich craft beer industry in the Pacific Northwest. The Beavers not only have a deal with MillerCoors, they also have an agreement with Columbia Distributing, which distributes several of the area’s craft brews. Inside the football stadium, Oregon State has established beer and wine festival areas in each end zone, providing a place where fans can watch the game while having an alcoholic beverage. It’s part of the school’s effort to appeal to younger adult fans.
“We’re resetting the norm in this category,” said Zack Lassiter, Oregon State’s deputy AD for external operations. “Whether it’s beer sales in the stadium or beer sponsorships or tailgating, I think we’re at a transitional time right now. As we move forward to the next stage of this, there will be new norms in this category.”
Looking down the road, most industry experts think it’s inevitable that colleges will continue to embrace beer sales and marketing. After all, the urgency to generate revenue isn’t going to dissipate as rising coaching salaries and expensive facility projects top the AD’s to-do list.
But with those expectations of sponsorship revenue come expectations from the buyer’s side as well. Pretty soon, there may not be much of a wall left between college sports and beer marketing.
“We’re very cognizant of the price increases for some of these college deals,” said ABI’s Kelly, citing the Texas/Corona sponsorship. “But we’ll have to see. If they want NFL money, they’re going to have to start getting more comfortable with selling NFL-type assets.”