On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe discuss why drinks brands across categories and price points are so eager to sponsor and partner with sports entities. From individual teams to entire leagues, the two debate whether or not the consumers these sports reach represent the only real mass audience left in America. Tune in for more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Josh Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: It’s the “VinePair Podcast.” Joanna’s not here. It’s like old times.
Z: Azores? My God. Where are the Azores? Do you know?
A: All I know is that they’re off the coast. So I know two things about them from what people have told me. That they’re off the coast of Portugal and that they’re the Hawaii of Europe. That’s all I’ve ever heard anyone say about them. I know that they’re, I think, quite far off of Portugal.
A: I don’t think it’s one of these, “Oh, take a ferry from Portugal.” I think it’s like you fly an hour and a half from Portugal.
A: So they’re not close; they’re in the middle of the Atlantic ocean basically.
A: And I’ve been looking at her photos and it definitely is not what I expected. It looks much more rugged and tropical than the islands I think of when I think of Europe. We think of Mediterranean islands.
A: It looks crazy. And as Joanna said, you go there to hike and stuff.
A: Seems like the thing that they’re doing, which is great.
Z: We’ll have to ask Joanna when she gets back what she drank, even if it’s not on a Monday podcast. Because I’m very curious what drinking culture in the Azores is like.
A: Me too. Is it Portuguese wine?
Z: Yeah, probably.
A: You think that anyone’s cultivating grapes? Interesting.
Z: I mean they certainly are on other Portuguese islands, like Madeira and stuff.
Z: But the Azores I think are further north. I don’t know, we’ll find out. Our ace reporter is on the scene, so we’ll have more info for you folks shortly.
A: Totally. But speaking of drinking, what are you drinking?
Z: So I’ve had a couple of things that are of interest, I think. The most exciting thing for me was having a few different expressions of the 2017 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino. My cousin, who also works in the wine industry, came over a few days ago with some bottles and we tasted a few, including a couple of different bottlings from Altesino, which is one of my favorite producers in the region. And Brunello, as I think I’ve shared on the podcast before, is certainly one of my favorite varieties and a style of wine. I guess it’s not technically a variety, but a style of wine made from Sangiovese.
Z: And I enjoy it quite a bit and it’s always fun for me to taste. Even if, weirdly, despite Caitlin generally liking Italian wine, she’s not a huge fan of it. But whatever, we make do. And then I think the only other thing that I had recently that I think is moderately interesting is, so after the episode we did on Friday about the Dirty Martini, I’ve been sort of thinking about that conversation and a little bit intrigued by the concept. And some of what kind of was hinted at in that conversation, we didn’t get too deep into the sort of conversation around Dirty Martini riffs. But I have been playing around with some other kinds of brine that one could add to sort of the basic Martini template, or essentially just gin really. So I’ve tried a little bit with a couple of different kinds of olives that we have in the house, and tried some with some pickle brine. And weirdly despite how much I think I thought I would find this adventure interesting, I’ve really come back to the fact that it’s actually just the Castelvetrano olive brine that I like best, and I haven’t really found the other ones to be that enjoyable. So it was kind of a surprise to me; I thought I might find them each appealing in their own way but the pickle brine for some reason just has not landed with me. I think there’s something about the flavor in there that just doesn’t work for me.
A: Not my thing either.
Z: Maybe some people like it, but I don’t know. How about you?
A: People like pickles.
Z: I like pickles fine, and I like them as cocktail garnishes fine, but somehow the pickle juice in the drink just isn’t working for me.
A: No, I feel that. I feel that. I’ve made someone a pickle brine version of a Dirty Martini before and they enjoyed it, but it wasn’t for me. Again, it felt like I was just drinking pickle juice.
A: So for me, not a ton. But I did do two things this past week that were pretty great. One is I celebrated Josh’s birthday, who’s the co-founder.
Z: Yeah. Happy birthday, Josh.
A: Yeah. Had him over for dinner and opened a bottle of the Chateau Montelena anniversary Chardonnay, the 50th anniversary or 50th birthday or whatever we’re calling it, Chardonnay, which was really awesome and fun. Because Josh loves Chateau Montelena and he loves Chardonnay, so that was a fun bottle to open. And then over the weekend I headed up to Beacon, N.Y., and paid a little visit to Paul Brady.
Z: Friend of the podcast.
A: Yes, at Paul Brady Wine. And I got to say, man, it was f*cking awesome.
Z: Oh cool.
A: First of all, Beacon has changed so much in the last few years. I feel like the last time I was up there after doing a hike and then going to Dia Beacon and whatever, there seemed to have been less, sort of, I guess young people opening places than there are now, and I definitely think that has to do with Covid.
A: It just looks like there’s a lot more entrepreneurs that have headed up there. There’s a cool cocktail bar called Wonderbar, there’s some really cool boutiques. And then Paul is sort of in the center of Main Street, so I would say equidistant from the train or from sort of this cool hotel called The Roundhouse. And it’s all New York State, which I think is really unique and also quite challenging, to be fair. Because of the farm license that he’s working with, he’s only allowed to both sell in a wine shop but then also serve at the wine bar and cocktail bar products that are made in New York State and with New York State agriculture.
A: New York State created these licenses to sort of encourage people to take advantage of the full sort of chain of production here in New York. So it wasn’t just like, “Hey, we’ll let you open a distillery but hey, we’d really like you to distill with grains.” Going to New York you can open a winery, but it’d be much better if you made wine with New York grapes than you try to bring grapes in from California or whatever like some places have done.
A: And the wines have gotten really good in New York. And so it was a real pleasure. And I think he then has gotten really creative for some of the cocktails. I had some Tiki cocktails that were using sherry instead of rum.
Z: Oh, interesting.
A: Because of course there’s not rum being made, at least yet, with New York State agriculture. So you could not do that. Some good whiskeys. But then the coolest wine I had from him was this wine from Six Eighty Cellars in the Finger Lakes.
A: And apparently it’s made by a pretty well-known somm, I did not know who he was. He was from New York and he has since moved to Oregon, so this wine will never exist again. And when Paul heard that, he bought all 40 cases that were left of the wine. And he’s been slowly selling it because it really is pretty spectacular. And as always, he was talking about that, just for young wine regions or up-and-coming wine regions like the Finger Lakes or Virginia or whatever, it’s always a bummer when one of the more talented winemakers leaves to go make wine in Oregon in Willamette or Napa or whatever. I mean you would always love to keep the people in that region. But I also get that when someone gets sort of notoriety, someone else comes calling and convinces them to move. So we just had sort of a conversation about that, because you usually think New York is the place where we have the companies that steal people from other places, but not when it comes to wine.
Z: Well definitely not on the production side.
A: Exactly. Exactly. So it was a lot of fun, though. I know we have a great interview with Paul if you want to go back and hear it from a few months ago, where he talked about opening the spot and making his own wine as well. Just really awesome. I loved seeing it in person, and anytime you get to meet a fellow entrepreneur, it’s a ton of fun and we got to chat about just business and all that good stuff. So that was what I did this past weekend.
Z: Very cool.
A: So as a follow-up, we got a lot of reaction already to our Monday of last week’s podcast about just the bat shit craziness when it comes to Major League Baseball and vodka. And so I thought it would be fun to sort of take a larger look — we teased this on the last podcast — at sports marketing in general. And I have a statement I’d like to put out there and have us react to, Zach, and that is, is the sponsorship by alcohol companies of professional sports the last great space to actually guarantee mass-market returns when it comes to consumers seeing the brand and actually turning around and buying it?
Z: So this is a great question, and ever since we’ve sort of posed this topic I’ve been thinking about it a lot and doing a little bit of research. And I think the answer to this is a sort of qualified yes, for two reasons. One, I think that some of what we’re talking about here is a part of the way that sports have remained in American culture. Less, not completely, but less touched by so many of the changes that have, let’s say removed or at least greatly limited, some of the other traditional places for not just kind of partnerships and branding, but also, frankly, just advertising. And one of those changes is a broadcast change. So I think if you are any kind of brand that wants to be seen, you can’t help but look at the ratings that live sports still gets and the fact that it’s pretty immune to some of the, not all of the DVR-ing and fast forwarding and ad skipping and stuff that you see with so much other content, but it is more immune to that than pretty much anything else because most people who care about sports want to watch them live. If your team has a big game, you’re not going to DVR it and watch it the next morning or later that night just to avoid ads. Whereas most of us, I don’t know your TV viewing habits, I mean, I know a lot about them actually from the podcast, but in terms of when in time you watch things, I imagine you’re like most of us, which is you stream stuff whenever it’s convenient for you. And if there are ads, depending on how you acquire that content, you might have to sit through some ads, but for the most part, you’re just not as reachable a target for advertising as people used to be. And I think the other piece of it, and this is maybe hard to define but I do think it’s relevant, is that sports remain a less politicized place than most other parts of contemporary American culture. And I think for certain kinds of brands, that is important. We talked a little bit about this a few weeks ago when we talked about the Americana design of Budweiser and how heavily they, and many other brands, lean into that. And sports, especially *certain sports, but all sports to some extent, carry some of that same valence. They are seen, I don’t know if as non-political; obviously they have lots of political dimensions and there’s a lot to be said about the many ways in which when we say non-political we’re really kind of betraying a certain bias in ourselves. But I think for most people, or a good chunk of people who are sports fans, they are not as concerned about politics in any form when they’re consuming sports content.
Z: And whether that’s the politics of the league or of the individuals participating or even the politics of the advertisers, that is, I think, also attractive. Not just because of what the politics of these brands might be, but also just because it is a space where I think you see buy-in or interest from across the political spectrum, and that is so untrue of almost anything else in modern American culture.
A: I think the other thing about sports, so if you read anyone who’s smart in terms of marketing strategy over the last few years, the thing they keep saying is “niche, niche, niche.” You’re supposed to advertise with publications where the audience is already down-funnel and you know that when they read you that they’re not super far away from taking the action of purchase. So the example we’ve given before is watch brands advertising on the publication HODINKEE, which is kind of the cool, hip watch publication, kind of the VinePair of watches. And someone who’s reading HODINKEE is much more likely to be in the market now or in the very near future for a watch. Someone who reads VinePair, it probably goes without saying, is probably going to be in the market for alcohol in the next day or so. So, and then you work with influencers and things like that as well, because the argument a lot of people make is that in mass market advertising it’s hard to know whether or not someone’s going to be in the market for that product anytime soon. So for example, billboards are sort of a mass market advertising. In driving down the highway you may not know if every single person who passes that billboard is going to be in the market for X, Y, or Z in the next day, week, etc. The only thing that probably works for billboard advertising is things like McDonald’s, because someone is going to eventually get hungry and you put that idea in their head. But not everyone who’s driving at that moment is going to be hungry. If we talk about things like The New York Times etc., there’s so many different people who are coming to The Times with different values, with different ideas, with different needs, so buying ads across the entire publication may not be 100 percent useful besides aligning yourself with the brand. The thing we know about sports is that once people are over 21 they drink, and they drink when they watch sports. And so that’s why I think this is becoming sort of the one mass market thing that everyone is going towards, because tailgating and drinking during sports are still one of the most constant pastimes in the U.S. The sports bar is a fixture when it comes to the type of bar we have here in the U.S. There’s probably more sports bars than everything besides maybe Irish pubs. There’s just so many sports bars in the U.S. We know that almost every bar that decides not to be a cocktail bar knows they have to have a large TV or two in their bar, even if they’re not a sports bar, that has the NFL ticket package, etc., to play the games on Sunday, to play basketball games in the local market, because if you have a TV, people are going to ask you to put sports on it.
A: And so I think that is why these companies are really smart to be going after aligning themselves with sports. Again, it’s not the only way to market, which is why you see the big people doing it, because they have budgets, then, to spread across everything else. But I think it’s going to get even more competitive because it really is the last thing that really works. I can’t think of another medium that reaches literally hundreds of millions of people every single weekend, or a week, during the playoffs, or during March Madness or whatever, that is touching enough people that are drinking quite like sports viewership.
Z: Well and I think an important thing to mention here, too, is there’s a way in which advertising with, or co-branding with, sports leagues teams, etc., is maybe also a way to walk a middle path between the two kinds of advertising that you were talking about. And by that I mean you have potentially large reach, which is important. And even if you don’t know that everyone seeing your advertising, your co-branding, whatever, is going to be in the market for whatever your product is, you are reaching a lot of people. And you’re reaching a lot of people who, in some sense, are indicating by their interest in a given team, a sport, etc., that they have a certain way in which that kind of entity helps inform their own identity. Think about how many people we probably both know. You mentioned on the podcast last week your younger brother who’s a big Braves fan, and I’m sure he owns Braves hats and shirts and wears them regularly even when he’s not going to a Braves game. I mean, I do the same thing with Seattle sports teams and many, many people do. And I think there are a lot of those people who would see purchasing a product that is identified with a brand that they already like as being an extension of the lifestyle they lead in, I guess, conjunction with that brand. I mean we think about some of the things, again, that we’ve mentioned on that last week’s podcast or in other podcasts where we talk about the connection with Conor McGregor’s fans and his whiskey. Or the connection between the NHL and New Amsterdam, etc. And I think MMA and Modelo, etc. There are all these ways in which people… If you know that the fanbase is going to drink, which we think we’ve already established and is not a big shock to anyone.
Z: In aggregate, obviously not everyone, but in aggregate. You can probably direct some of that purchasing towards your product just by association. And that might be pretty hard to do with almost anything else. Because, with some exceptions, I think you could be a really big “Star Wars” fan or Marvel Cinematic Universe fan, but there’s probably not going to be a “Star Wars” brand tequila. I mean, f*ck, I don’t know, man. The world is crazy now and maybe there will be, but it seems unlikely to drive purchasing behavior in the same way. What you would be buying there is, you’re a person who likes tequila and you can buy a tequila that comes in Darth Vader’s helmet or some sh*t like that. Probably exists, I’m probably describing a real product. There definitely are some skull-shaped spirits bottles already. But the point is, that’s a little different than being the official whatever pick of sports team or sports league and that perhaps driving purchasing in a category that is kind of saturated and where garnering some of that loyalty is really valuable to some of these brands.
A: Yeah. If you look at where other brands have advertised in the past that are mass market, you have people aligning themselves with the Oscars or the Golden Globes, which now we don’t talk about anymore, but I would argue that while some people drink while watching them, I don’t think that it’s a drinking occasion. You have reality TV and people are like, “We’re the official sponsor of Bravo” or whatever, and again, I think some people drink while watching those shows; I don’t think that everyone does. It’s really hard to think of a cultural moment that happens in the U.S. where almost everyone who is of legal drinking age and enjoys drinking — so I recognize there are people who abstain — who doesn’t drink while watching sports. And the only other connection you could make, but this is why sports is more powerful, is live music. Because yes, at concerts people drink, but no one is also watching that concert on TV while people are at that concert drinking.
A: This is what makes sports so incredible in terms of the thing for these brands to align with, which is why they’re paying top dollar for it. And I think it’ll be really interesting to see how someone like Gallo, because I think the main brand they’ve sponsored the NFL with this year is going to be Barefoot. It’ll be really interesting to see how they take advantage of that and if they’re able to get the same sort of loyalty that I do believe Budweiser has built over the years through its partnership. I believe Crown Royal is building one right now through Diageo’s partnership. Will wine fit in there as easily? Or will people say like, “Eh, not so sure.” Or, “If I am drinking wine, I want it to be higher-end than Barefoot.” I think that will also be really interesting to see. But yeah, I mean I was just thinking back to myself, I think probably the only time I ever drink Budweiser once in a while is watching sports, because it feels like something you’re supposed to do. You’re at the bar and you’re like, “Eh, I’ll have a Budweiser”.
A: Or you’re at a tailgate like, “Oh yeah, I’ll have a Budweiser. We’re about to go watch football”. And I think that’s because the brand has connected itself so deeply to sports, especially to football.
A: So yeah. I mean my question is, is it every sport? Is it just the three major sports? It’s interesting you mentioned MMA because I think that’s really true, I’d forgotten about the Molson partnership there. But look, it seems like right now, I don’t watch it but we hear Joanna talk about it a bunch, that there’s a lot of people rushing into sponsorship of Formula One.
Z: And that’s a perfect example of where the sort of identity association might be more valuable. Because I think that’d be very interesting to hear whether, I don’t know if at some point in the future we can come back to this, and Adam, you can say if you’ve heard any of this. Or certainly listeners, you can email us firstname.lastname@example.org if you happen to know anything. But I would be curious on some of these deals, whether the concessions rights… You talk about live music, and there the real value is, of course, the concessions rights at these venues. Whoever has the exclusive contract with Live Nation for whatever things, all their money is just sales. And that’s a hugely valuable thing, obviously. I mean these companies are trying to sell their product, of course. And with these sports deals, I think it’s multiple outlets. It’s the in-arena, in-stadium sales, which definitely matter. And in some cases, especially with very popular teams, with sports that have a lot of games like baseball, there’s a volume thing there that matters. But it is all the other sales that go along with it, whether it’s, as you mentioned, for tailgating or at sports bars or all these things that are kind of associations with it. And sports, I think, offers that in a way that, as you said, nothing else really can because it creates these drinking occasions outside of the venue that are pretty hard to create otherwise. And so that is where I think the question of, kind of where the value comes for these companies, is hard for me to parse because I don’t have the numbers, I don’t have the information on that. But I do think it’s where you have both the sort of advantage of some of these really big deals where having that kind of visibility is really important. But it’s also where I think even individual team local deals and stuff like that can actually be very valuable, because you can build loyalty. Again, it’s about building that connection. Sports fans, again, have already shown a very strong propensity for a kind of brand loyalty. I mean, what else is sports fandom than brand loyalty in a way? And if they can tap into that existing brand loyalty, be it for Seattle Mariners baseball or Auburn football, whatever the case may be, that’s going to be a powerful thing that they hope to harness. And of course not purely alcohol companies do that. Obviously, these sports teams and leagues have all kinds of sponsors, all of whom are hoping to tie into that, but not as many of them connect to the kind of social experience of the sport as directly as drinking does.
A: Yeah, and I think there’s two things that are really interesting. I have a prediction, but I’ll make it at the end. But I think one thing that is interesting about sports is that, depending on the sport, and this is where I thought you might be going, it can unlock different types of brands.
A: So Barefoot works for the NFL. The NFL is the every person league. That’s sort of what it tries to be anyways, so therefore, really that is why Budweiser, Crown, Barefoot work there. Formula One is a luxury league.
Z: It’s not a Barefoot league.
A: Yes. And it wants to be luxury, so that’s why you see Patrón there, there’s LVMH brands there. People are getting the really high-end brands being there because they want you to obviously drink, but they think you’re having a different drinking experience when you’re watching Formula One because you’re watching Ferraris drive around the race course.
A: Same for Wimbledon or here, the U.S. Open. Grey Goose is a massive sponsor of the U.S. Open because it’s a luxury vodka. I don’t think that it would work as well if you saw Tito’s as the sponsor for the U.S. Open. But people think Grey Goose has this sort of French, high-end persona to it, so it feels like it fits with tennis, which is a country club sport.
Z: Yeah. For sure.
A: And so those are, I think, all the reasons — and everyone at all these sporting events drink.
A: It doesn’t matter. Low brow, high brow, it works. Now my prediction is the other thing that’s currently happening in the climate that we are all watching, especially if we watch college sports, is NIL deals and the fact that we’re creating super-conferences. So for UCLA and USC to be leaving basically the Pac-12 to head to the Big 10, that’s crazy. And the SEC continuing to get bigger? Nuts. And I think as these leagues get bigger and bigger, you are going to start seeing a lot of them say, “You know what? There’s way too much money on the table from alcohol. We need to start saying that we’re OK with it”. And I think that a lot of universities are just going to say it is what it is. Maybe we serve it in certain sections of our stadium; we don’t serve alcohol in every section. But just so people are aware, in the high-roller suites of these stadiums, even stadiums that say they ban alcohol, they’ve always been serving alcohol. Because if the donor’s giving enough money, they’re letting them drink during the games.
A: So I think they just open it up and all of a sudden you’re going to hear Diageo has become the official spirit sponsor of the SEC. Or maybe it’s a large regional craft backed by a major. So maybe it’s Lagunitas becomes the official sponsor of the Pac-12 or something. But I definitely think that’s going to come very soon because what these leagues are all trying to do is combine in order to earn more and more and more money.
A: And this is too much money to be leaving on the table.
Z: For sure. Well, and you mentioned NIL deals and stuff like that. It’d be fascinating to see at some point what happens if you’re a 21-year-plus athlete and spirits brand wants your NIL rights.
Z: I am not that invested in college athletics at this point, and I don’t know the deal. Probably at the moment you can’t do that, but it would be harder to do that if your conference or your college is taking in tens of millions of dollars in alcohol sponsorships for them to say you can’t do that if you’re of legal age. Obviously it’s a different story if you’re 18, I think that’s an understandable difference. But once you reach a legal drinking age, it seems like why wouldn’t you be able to endorse whatever legal product you want? It seems like you should be able to, but again, college athletics is a very weird realm that I only slightly pay attention to. But I don’t think you’re wrong. I think your kind of supposition on this is very likely correct, in part because as you said it’s become, from my understanding, something of an arms race and any of these revenue streams that can be tapped into are going to be explored by someone soon if they’re not already.
A: And if you look at market dynamics it makes sense. Smart marketers will always do two things. You should always be going as niche as possible, and you should also be going as mass as possible, at the same time. So as the mass that works continues to get crappier and crappier, no one’s really looking at these mass display deals that people buy anymore. We know that, what, 40 plus percent of people who are on the internet run ad blockers. No one’s seeing these display ads. The mass market television advertising’s not working. We’re all going to streaming; we’re paying to skip commercials. Like I said, I don’t really think it works around these other major cultural events; you don’t have the same ingrain. So you’re going to go niche, you’re going to work with niche publications and influencers, etc. in the space, and you’re going to go mass to sports.
A: When you go mass to sports, there’s going to be a lot more brands fighting over a lot less opportunity. There can only be one official wine sponsor of the NFL, and that’s Barefoot/ Gallo. That means that’s locking out a lot of other very large wine companies that might have had the same sponsorship dollars and ability to sponsor as Gallo. We know that was happening in beer forever, that was what people were complaining about Anheuser-Busch. That’s what we know is happening in spirits. There’s a lot of other brands that probably could afford the Diageo deal, but Diageo outspent them. And that’s just the nature of how this works and it’s within the NFL’s interest, and within Major League Baseball’s interests, etc., to have one official sponsor.
A: They can sell it for a lot more. And so we do the same thing here. We have one official tequila sponsor for the month of May. We only have one tequila brand that runs on our entire site in the month of may. Why? Because we can command a premium for it. That’s just how things work. So that’s why I also think college has to be coming because people are going to look to something else to put their money in.
A: And college football is almost as popular as NFL, especially in certain regions of the country it’s more popular. So it has to be coming soon. This has been really interesting, Zach.
Z: I know, we got to talk sports on the podcast two Mondays in a row.
A: I know. I know.
Z: God, it’s like my dream come true.
A: Let us know what you think, email@example.com. Do you have a specific sport that you watch, and do you associate that sport with a specific alcohol? Really curious. Did watching sports at all cause you to drink a specific alcohol? What do you think about this?
Z: I mean definitely watching certain sports has caused me to drink. I’m a long-suffering Mariners fan.
A: But that’s also a good point; that this is one of the only areas of culture where we accept and say it’s OK for your team winning to cause you to drink and for your team losing to cause you to drink. It’s almost like an excuse.
Z: That’s a good point.
A: Which again goes into why people think it’s acceptable to advertise in such a large way on sports.
A: Really, really good point at the end there, Zach.
Z: Snuck it in and right before the final buzzer I guess.
A: Yeah. Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let us know what you think. Zach, we will be joined back by Joanna on Friday, and I will see you then.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.