AB InBev strikes deals to put more sports pros in beer ads, overcoming long-held resistance

By Published on .

Credit: Budweiser

Anheuser-Busch InBev will put more pro baseball and basketball players in its marketing as result of new deals with the players unions of Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. The pacts are a significant development because pro sports leagues have historically been reluctant to allow active players to promote alcohol.

Federal alcohol regulators frown upon any marketing that connects consumption of alcohol with athletic prowess. As a result, brands have for years mostly avoided putting active players in beer marketing. Their fallback has been to use sports announcers or retired players, dating all the way back to Miller Lite's classic 1970s campaign "Great Taste, Less Filling," which featured ex-jocks dubbed the "Miller Lite All Stars."

The National Football League specifically prohibits putting active players in beer ads—a policy that remains in place, according to a spokesman. The NBA and MLB do not have rules specifically banning active players in alcohol ads, league sources confirmed, but the practice has been infrequent.

Anheuser-Busch InBev's push to get more NBA players in marketing programs was made easier by an arrangement last year in which the NBA Players Association assumed control of brand deals that use multiple player images. The league previously handled such negotiations with brands and shared revenue with the union. The players association has since become more aggressive in seeking deals—and the beer category representas a potentially lucrative source of revenue that has been under tapped.

Budweiser already has an official NBA sponsorship that dates back to 1998, allowing it to use NBA trademarks. The brewer has recently used retired stars in ads, like recent "legends" spots that highlighted ex-stars like Robert Horry and Tracy McGrady.

But with the new players union deal, the brewer is poised to lean more heavily on active players. Marcel Marcondes, AB InBev's U.S. chief marketing officer, calls the MLB and NBA pacts a "landmark" that is "a game-changing thing in the way we deal with sponsorships." He adds: "Fans are first and foremost connected to currently active players… That is what drives the conversation. This is what influences culture."

The brewer and players association tested the new arrangement earlier this year with a Mother's Day ad starring Kevin Durant and his mom.

The new NBA deal includes locally targeted out-of-home ads such as one starring New York Knick Tim Hardaway Jr. The ad, which will hit the market soon, shows Hardaway shooting a jumper next to the Budweiser logo and the phrase "Hardwood Legends. Beechwood Lager."

A spokesman for AB InBev says the brewer is plotting ads targeting 16 players in 16 cities but could expand that. The brewer has deals with 23 individual NBA teams that give it access to team logos. While the player deals expire on Dec. 31, "we anticipate renegotiating each of those deals, and potentially more, for 2019," the spokesman says.

Marcondes says the brewer is also planning a Christmas campaign called "Drink Wiser" that features a group of players and has a social responsibility bent.

A spokesman for the NBA players association's marketing arm, which is called Think450, calls the 15-market promotion "another example of the value of Think450 working directly with and for the players."

Credit: Budweiser

The deal with the MLB Players Association kicks into full gear next season. But the brewer has already run several small-scale efforts, such as Budweiser marketing last season featuring World Series MVP George Springer of the Houston Astros.

Because MLB has allowed active players in ads for a while, "maybe we could have done this sooner," says Tim Slavin, the MLBPA's chief of business affairs and licensing senior counsel. But he called the new deal "the right fit" because Budweiser is "synonymous with baseball." The pact "makes good business sense for both Budweiser and the players who participate," he adds. It "will add starpower and excitement to their marketing efforts. It will also give players new opportunities to associate with an iconic brand."

While federal regulations do not prohibit using active sports players in ads, there are restrictions for alcohol that don't apply to other categories. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, judges on a case-by-case ads what might be deemed socially irresponsible. For instance, unacceptable product labels or ads include anything suggesting the "consumption of the alcoholic beverage will enhance athletic prowess, performance at athletic activities or events, health or conditioning," according to regulations.

"Even though the TTB may not take issue with an ad, each of the professional sports leagues have their own policies concerning players in alcohol ads; for example, the NFL doesn't allow it," says Njeri Chasseau, an associate in the advertising, marketing and digital media group at the law firm Baker Hostetler. "As a result, it can be pretty tricky navigating which rules and regulations, official or not, apply to your advertising and whether your ad is 'socially responsible' enough to avoid scrutiny."

Marcondes says AB InBev is in negotiations with the NFL to get its active player ad ban lifted. An NFL spokesman said "we continually evaluate our policies, but there's been no change."

Still, the brewer has already started eating away at the restriction in recent years. When AB InBev renewed its NFL sponsorship in 2015, for example, it was granted rights to use game footage showing players as long as the players were not individually identifiable. And earlier this year, Bud Light erected a statue of Philadelphia Eagles player Nick Foles and coach Doug Pederson at Lincoln Financial Field commemorating the "Philly Special" trick play that helped the Eagles win the most recent Super Bowl.

Most Popular