Since 1882, when the American Association’s founders determined that selling alcohol to fans might help them compete with the entrenched National League, beer, every bit as much as green grass, white ash and cow leather, has been an essential baseball element.
That strategy, of course, triggered a bonanza. Today, MLB teams sell more than $1 billion worth of beer. Its ballparks are sunlit saloons equipped with beer billboards, beer taps, beer vendors, beer gardens. Players quench their postgame thirsts with beer. Fans consume it before, during and after games. Slick beer commercials both sustain and punctuate the sport’s TV broadcasts.
And yet, for reasons that now seem more puritanical than practical, active ballplayers were prohibited from appearing in beer ads or, more important in the view of some, from sharing substantially in the pot of lager-colored gold that big-league teams were reaping.
But now that unlikely prohibition, based on a rule that didn’t really exist, is finally being lifted. Soon active athletes like the Phillies’ Aaron Nola, who has a deal with Pennsylvania’s D.G. Yuengling & Sons Inc., will be pitching publicly for beer. Others like Houston’s George Springer and the NBA’s Kevin Durant will appear in national and local campaigns planned by the ubiquitous brewing giant Anheuser-Busch.
“Fans are first and foremost connected to currently active players,” explained Marcel Marcondes, chief marketing officer for Anheuser-Busch InBev. “That is what drives the conversation … influences culture.”
Nola hasn’t yet appeared in any Yuengling TV commercials or ballpark ads, but the young Phillies ace has posted several endorsements of the Pottsville-based brewer on his Instagram account.
“Yuengling’s been a go-to for me ever since I first tried it back when the Phillies drafted me,” he said in one.
This change was driven by professional athletes’ growing interest in controlling their individual brands. In short, the players associations in baseball and the NBA wanted a larger share and more control of beer ads that were using their sports and occasionally their images as backdrops.
“We were mindful that the advertisements and promotions for these companies were visible around every ballpark,” Tim Slavin, chairman of business affairs for the Major League Baseball Players Association, said last week. “Players were associated with these ads and products to some extent. For us, it was in part leveling the playing field of commercial opportunity between the clubs and players.”
While some athletes in individual sports like golf or auto racing have long done such ads, team sports at least since the 1950s have not allowed them. In baseball, clubs cited an unwritten prohibition. The brewing companies, meanwhile, adhered to the Beer Institute’s Advertising & Marketing Code that prevented the practice and to an arcane Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulation forbidding any commercial linkage of alcohol and athletic skills.
As a result, beer commercials with a baseball flavor featured either retired athletes – think early Miller Lite commercials – or generic images of them. Although the advertisements tended to imply their endorsement, the active athletes themselves had no say in the content or compensation. Occasionally the MLBPA objected.
“In some cases, the ads were using models to serve as players, which was confusing to us because players at the time were precluded from leveraging commercial opportunity in the category,” Slavin said. “In other cases, there were issues related to implied endorsements of players for products when the player wasn’t even aware of the campaign.”
Historically, the leagues had handled the beer-company contracts. Some revenue was shared with the unions. Now, thanks to contracts they negotiated with Anheuser-Busch in 2018, the MLBPA and NBA players union can deal directly – and more profitably – with the brewers. (The NFL still prohibits its players from participating in such ads.)
Asked for financial details of the new agreement, Slavin said, “We try to keep the economic terms of our partnerships confidential.”
Ironically, it was a bizarre 2018 ballpark promotion that helped precipitate the shift. According to Slavin, the MLBPA complained about a beer company that was “creating player images using beer foam.”
“In one article about it, we saw a statement claiming that MLB ‘does not permit active players to be involved in the advertising or promotion of beer or other alcohol,'” Slavin said. “We were surprised by this and called over to MLB … Their response was, ‘There is no such rule. Used to be years ago.'”
Despite its profit potential, this untapped commercial opportunity wasn’t something that had unanimous support among the players. Some weren’t eager to be associated with alcohol.
“Some of them don’t drink or don’t want to promote drinking,” Slavin said. “To them, it could be perceived as sending the wrong message. But they also knew that the advertisements and promotions already were visible all over the ballparks where they work.”
Budweiser began promoting a few players, like Springer, in the 2018 postseason, then launched a point-of-sale campaign this opening day. Eventually, there will be at least one Budweiser ambassador in every baseball market where the giant brewer has a relationship with the team, including Philadelphia.
All the advertisements, Slavin said, will promote responsible drinking. While the athletes will be shown in game footage or talking to the camera, none will be seen consuming the product.
And if this relationship works out, similar once-unthinkable opportunities could arise for players with wine or spirit companies.
“We’re always having conversations about ways to market our players with new brands and categories,” Slavin said. “We certainly are considering wine and spirits … if we are confident we can do so in a responsible way.”