Diageo is NFL’s first liquor sponsor in landmark deal
Diageo—which broke the National Football League’s liquor ad barrier in 2017—has cleared another regulation hurdle by becoming the league’s first-ever spirits sponsor. The multiyear deal gives the liquor giant rights to use NFL trademarks in national TV ads, digital marketing and activations at games.
Diageo will make Crown Royal the lead brand in the deal but is also expected to use it to plug its other brands, including Smirnoff Vodka and Captain Morgan.
Diageo declined to release financial terms of the sponsorship, but the pact puts the liquor marketer on par with other NFL sponsors including Anhesuer-Busch InBev and PepsiCo, which shell out millions of dollars annually to get their brands in front of the league’s massive audience. There is one key difference, however: AB InBev controls exclusive TV ad rights for the Super Bowl, so unless that changes Diageo will be sidelined for the Big Game.
Still, the deal marks another watershed moment for the liquor industry, which has for years fought to overcome its second-class status when compared with beer, which has historically faced fewer sports advertising regulations. A big break came in 2017, when the NFL lifted its ban on in-game liquor ads. At the time, the league kept its ban on league-wide liquor sponsorships. That was lifted in 2019, but the NFL has not signed a liquor sponsor until now.
Ed Pilkington, chief marketing and innovation officer for Diageo North America, in an interview suggested that the company’s individual team sponsorship deals, which include responsible drinking messages, played a role in convincing the NFL to do a league-wide deal. Diageo has 12 team sponsorships in place, including with the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles.
“The NFL has seen what we’ve done,” Pilkington says.”We started a conversation with them and we said, ‘We do this and we do it responsibly.’ We believe we can add value. We believe we can bring a great experience to the fans.”
Renie Anderson, the NFL’s chief revenue officer and executive VP for partnerships, in a statement said: “We look forward to working with Diageo on innovative programs to elevate their business, as well as furthering the important message around responsible drinking.”
The deal includes international rights, meaning that Diageo can make use of the sponsorship during the two regular season games planned in the fall for London. The company will also be presenting sponsor of the NFL’s Fan of the Year contest, which this year will culminate with the winner being honored at Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles.
As for Diageo’s interest in gaining Super Bowl TV ad rights, Pilkington said “we have to respect the deals that are in place,” referring to AB InBev’s deal. “But you have to keep the possibility open.” An AB InBev representative confirmed the brewer still holds exclusivity for the 2022 Super Bowl.
Even without the Super Bowl, Diageo brands will gain more awareness in regular season games, which are a ratings juggernaut on their own. “We already advertise” in the games, but “we’ll just do more,” Pilkington says. “And we’ll be doing lots of activation on the ground, that is the other key piece.”
But the company will still face limits not faced by advertisers in other categories. The league still has a rule that spirits brands must cap their ad buys at four 30-second spots per game with a limit of two ads in any quarter or within halftime, an NFL representative confirmed. The rules also prohibit spirits ads from having a “football theme.”
But there are ways to hint at football without running afoul of the NFL’s rule, which seem to be loosely interpreted. Diageo, for instance, has run ads that encourage fans to moderate their drinking and also drink water. One ad showed a ref in purple stripes, which matches Crown Royal's brand color. He calls a water break at a bar where people are watching football. Patrons are shown drinking water before getting back to their alcohol.