Up for the match: Craft beer on and off the pitch

Guinness announced a few weeks ago that it was extending its current sponsorship of rugby’s Pro12 tournament for a further four years. The company clearly hopes that this new commitment will give it added exposure and convince people to stop referring to the tournament as the Magners League. This is a similar problem to rugby’s European Cup as people long associate it as the Heineken (or simply ‘H in France) Cup. The new Guinness tie-in follows an unsuccessful attempt to become title sponsors of the English Premier League. Carling has made a return as the official beer of type-flight football.

Of course these sponsorship arrangements are important sources of funding of sports. Breweries will try to snap up as many competitions as possible to keep them out of the hands of competitors but also to respond to a more imminent concern – a blanket ban on alcohol sponsorship of sports. It already happens in France for example. Now the Irish Government and others are expected to follow suit. This undoubtedly will cause problems for the likes of the IRFU and GAA.

One of many Dublin GAA themed ads from Five Lamps
One of many Dublin GAA themed ads from Five Lamps

In addition to the sponsorship money forked over, sponsors can be typically expected to pay anywhere up to 50% of the amount paid telling consumers that the sponsor said team, league or event. This can range from exclusive bars inside stadia, branding pubs, competitions, TV ads, instore promotions etc. However, they are particularly exposed on their flank to one particular threat – ambush marketing; other companies getting in on the game with little to no money down.

In the run-up to the All Ireland Football Championship, Five Lamps Brewery hosted a couple of GAA-themed events. Other breweries have released sports-themed beer names such as Western Herd’s Danger Here. Rascals Brewing Co.have had a few like Holy Schmidt Pale Ale and 13 Seconds. Such approaches fit in with a sector that sees itself in the midst of a revolution, trying to usurp control from the larger, macro breweries. Attention-seeking from the likes of BrewDog and others is key to a sector that has minimal money to spend on advertising.

Beer names have long been a popular tool to pay tribute to sports but even more importantly, they attract attention in and around major events
Beer names have long been a popular tool to pay tribute to sports but even more importantly, they attract attention in and around major events

Ambush marketing is perhaps a little too harsh a prism to view such actions. It’s not like infamous battles of Coke versus Pepsi or Addidas versus Nike to claim hearts and minds of consumers. Craft breweries are using other tactics to reach out to consumers through sport. Trouble Brewing has hosted craft beer nights in Dalymount Park. Kelly’s Mountain have been involved with their local GAA club.

Craft breweries are approaching sponsorship opportunities strategically. Sweetwater Brewery was launched by Rye River in Ireland the week of Boston College-Georgia Tech American Football game. As if that wasn’t enough, SweetWater was available draught at The Trinity Welcome Village at Trinity College Dublin, the official tailgating venue for the Aer Lingus Classic. Over in the west, Wild Bat brewery has collaborated with Oughterard RFC on a limited edition rugby jersey.

Wild Bat taking it one step further with this limited edition Oughterard RFC jersey
Wild Bat taking it one step further with this limited edition Oughterard RFC jersey

It seems that craft beer is prepared to take on the larger breweries head on in their traditional domain – sponsorship in marketing. However, they’re doing it in their own special way. Sure, what else would we expect from them.

Woohoo, craft beer can still sponsor what now?

In the wake of Budget 2014 with 10 cents added to the pint (before VAT being applied) and the announcement that minimum pricing is to be introduced, Government also decided to put off the banning on alcohol advertising at sporting events. Various sporting bodies and associations breathed a sigh of relief because it removed the risk of losing a valuable source of income. This will of course be of little benefit to Ireland’s craft breweries but the growth in independent breweries elsewhere have seen them encroach into the previous taboo area of mainstream  sports advertising and sponsorship.

Take for instance that the second-tier of English rugby is the Green King IPA Championship. Marston’s Pedigree is the official beer of English cricket and its English Pale Ale is a big seller at Lords. The Kent county cricket team is sponsored by Spitfire. The best craft beer sports sponsorship link-up has to involve newly arrived to Irish shores Dale’s Pale Ale from Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewing. It holds the honour of being the very first Nascar-branded beer.

Source: www.oskarblues.com

With the Heineken Cup seemingly in disarray and a new competition structure in the offing, might we see some interesting sponsorship deals? For example, the Cork County teams being sponsored by Franciscan Well? Singha is now the official beer of the 2015 Rugby World Cup but if Ireland hosts it in 2023, will one of our existing independent breweries provide the official beer? Unlikely but I’d settle for more choice at sports venues. However, they’d limited to draft or taking a page from US craft breweries, cans. I don’t think too many Irish breweries would want to produce beers in plastic bottles (although maybe the technology will improve over time) because they’ve left that behind in the early home-brewing days.

So in short the wasn’t too much to cheer the Irish independent brewers in the Budget, except for the fact that the 9% VAT rate is retained and we have seen the growth in pairing good food and beer. Also, there were positive measures introduced to support entrepreneurs such as changes to the Employment and Investment Incentive Scheme and Capital Gains Tax. The ‘Start Your Own Business’ scheme grants a two-year exemption from income tax to founders  who have been receiving social welfare for fifteen months or more (up to a limit of €40,000). This could be an opportunity for Beer Ireland and the Taste 4 Success Skillnet to really make a difference because those already on the live register availing of their courses/network could be really encouraged to go out and start their own brewery. Let’s hope these measures work.