The special bond between beer and baseball has been in existence for years. It has the same resonance as popcorn and movies but with a lot more local pride attached to it. The tie between a team and their local brewery was actually at its strongest in the late 19th century.
Back in the day, National Bohemian was the beer of choice for all Baltimore Orioles fans. And when Chuck Thompson exclaimed inquisitively “Ain’t the beer cold?” all the fans of Baltimore Orioles would know it was time to crack open their local drink.
But you can’t talk about ties between a team and their local brewery without mentioning Anheuser Busch and the St. Louis Cardinals. Anheuser didn’t only own the team from 1953 to 1996 but also has the naming rights to Busch stadium all the way to 2025.
While the relationship between baseball teams and their local breweries still exist to some extent, it has weakened. Big-beer brands (e.g., Budweiser) swooped in and took over the already-contracting beer market. Budweiser became the official, beer sponsor of Major League Baseball in 1980—Miller Lite followed closely behind.
Presently, however, the macro-brew market is being challenged by a very unlikely competitor: CRAFT BEER. Artisan-ale sales are on a rise while domestic macro brews continue to lose market share. Craft beer has been getting space in ballparks—some even offering in-house bars branded with the names of local, craft beers. It’s a great step to incorporate local-beer pride among patrons; but AB-InBev products (e.g., Goose Island and Shock Top) still hold the winning spot at most ballparks despite the rise in local craft-beer sales.
Things are about to change. As opening day approaches, the Kansas City Royals have named Boulevard Brewing their official craft-beer partner. This will be the first time a team has had an official craft beer, according to Major League Baseball.
“It’s really a relationship that has come into its own,” KC Royals VP of PR Toby Cook said in an interview.
Boulevard had been a lower-level partner of the team since 2012, as Kauffman Stadium served the beer since the mid-90s. This was well before the Kansas City brewery grew into one of the largest, craft breweries in the country. In 2015, the Royals opened “Craft and Draft featuring Boulevard Brewing Company”—an in-stadium bar slinging over 75 beer varieties!
Anheuser-Busch was the official partner of the Royals before Boulevard beer. But the long-standing partnership expired this year.
“We knew when it was time to make a transition, if it was going to be a transition, we’d like to have Boulevard involved in a bigger and better way,” Cook added.
There will now be more places at Kauffman Stadium serving Boulevard beer. From a new Hop Stop bar in right field to a Radler Station concession stand serving Boulevard’s seasonal radler—Ginger Lemon. Many other kiosks and bars will also be selling the beer.
Miller Coors and Miller Lite are also official sponsors of the Royals.
Boulevard Marketing VP Natalie Gerson says label/logo cross promotion is one of the best draws of partnering with the KC Royals. While Boulevard beer is being sold to customers and promoted in TV-marketing campaigns, the company will feature the baseball team’s logo on their product(s)–e.g., KC Pils and Unfiltered Wheat Beer.
When the Royals defeated the New York Mets in the World Series, Boulevard released their special Crown Town Ale. “We all knew, and everybody in town knew, that it was a reference to the local baseball team winning the World Series,” Cook explained. “But because they didn’t have the rights to the Royals logo, we couldn’t do anything but just say, ‘That’s a really good beer.’”
The special Boulevard bottles or coasters will not be available to fans outside of the Midwest though. This is due to the MLB’s marketing rules. Teams are only allowed to have “local” sponsorships that can be promoted within the teams’ defined territories. Budweiser is currently the only brewery in the country allowed to use Major League Baseball logos and issue cans with the logos of all 30 teams.
But the Boulevard-Royals deal can be a major stepping stone for craft-beer sponsorship for every major-league team. “We’ve gotten some calls asking, ‘Hey, how did this craft beer thing come about?’” Cook said. “We wouldn’t be surprised if we see other teams doing something similar.”
Many are skeptical though.
Because of the special relationship between beer and baseball, it is very easy to see a world of conflict possibly ensuing when local craft beers attempt to infiltrate the beer market.
Let’s also not forget most craft breweries are small and unable to produce as much beer as large, beer companies. Boulevard produces about 200,000 barrels per year. And yes, this may be large compared to other craft brewers, but it’s only a fraction of what Budweiser produces. A major-league-sponsorship deal would definitely be way over budget for most craft brewers.
Whether or not the Boulevard-Royals deal encourages other craft brewers to partner with baseball teams or not, it’s still a big step for the craft-beer industry. It shows just how much the industry has grown and maybe can soon be on par with macrobeers—only time will tell.