Rhode Island’s Narragansett became sponsors of the Red Sox during World War II, and the relationship lasted through 1975. Narragansett estimates that during that time it sold 6 million beers at Fenway Park. And Anheuser Busch’s long-standing ties to the St. Louis Cardinals, including ownership of the team from 1953 to 1996 and the current naming rights to Busch Stadium through at least 2025, remain the gold standard when talking about the relationship between a brewery and a team as inseparable institutions, even as Budweiser grew to the international Goliath that it is today.
But as the U.S. beer market began to contract, with fewer than 100 breweries operating across the country by the late ’70s, the big national brands took over baseball. Budweiser became the official beer sponsor of Major League Baseball in 1980, a position it will retain through at least 2018, while Miller Lite began showing ads featuring Bob Uecker, Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner.
Today, as craft beer sales rise and domestic macrobrews continue to lose market share, some ballparks offer in-house bars branded with the names of local craft beers: Anchor Plaza and Taproom at AT&T Park in San Francisco, the Great Lakes Brewing bar at Cleveland’s Progressive Field or the Flying Dog Grill at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. But more often than not, beer-loving fans face an illusion of choice, as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors are the official beer sponsors of most teams. While Nationals Park sells local brews from the District Drafts carts, most space goes to AB-InBev products, such as Goose Island and Shock Top. (A notable exception is Seattle’s Safeco Field, where stands offer sour beers, cask ales and dozens of craft choices.)
As Opening Day approaches, however, there’s some good news: The Kansas City Royals have named Boulevard Brewing their official craft beer partner. According to Major League Baseball, it’s the first time a team has had an official craft beer.
“It’s really a relationship that has come into its own,” says Toby Cook, the Royals’ vice president for publicity. Boulevard beer has been served at Kauffman Stadium since the mid-’90s, well before the Kansas City brewery grew into one of the largest craft breweries in the country. Boulevard has been a partner of the team since 2012, albeit on a lower level; in 2015, the Royals opened “Craft and Draft featuring Boulevard Brewing Company,” a bar inside the stadium serving more than 75 beers.
The Royals’ long-standing partnership with Anheuser-Busch 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 says. Inside the stadium, that means it should be easier to find Boulevard beers, with a new Hop Stop bar in Right Field and a Radler Station concession stand pouring Boulevard’s seasonal Ginger Lemon Radler, as well as a stronger presence at kiosks and bars. (Boulevard isn’t the only beer at Kauffman Stadium, of course: MillerCoors is a team sponsor, selling its products at most bars, and Miller Lite is the team’s official beer. Cook refers to it as a “two-tier beer partnership.”)
One of the biggest advantages of being an official partner, says Boulevard’s vice president for marketing, Natalie Gershon, is that the brewery will be able to use the Royals’ logo on bottles of its KC Pils and Unfiltered Wheat Beer throughout the Royals’ television market in the Midwest, which stretches from Iowa south to Arkansas, including all of Kansas. Previously, Boulevard’s pride in its local baseball team was shown with a wink and a nod: In 2015, a month after the Royals crushed the New York Mets in the World Series, Boulevard released special bottles of a beer called 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 says. “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.’ ”
This remains, however, a truly local deal: Fans outside of the Royals’ television market won’t be able to find the special bottles or Boulevard coasters because of MLB marketing rules. While Budweiser is the only brewery in the country allowed to use Major League Baseball logos and issue cans with the logos of all 30 teams, as it did last year, teams are allowed to have “local” sponsorships that can be promoted within the teams’ defined territories.
In theory, the deal between Boulevard and the Royals could crack open the doors for every major league team to have a craft beer sponsor. “We’ve gotten some calls asking, ‘Hey, how did this craft beer thing come about?’ ” Cook says. “We wouldn’t be surprised if we see other teams doing something similar.”
It would be nice. But I’m skeptical.
It is telling that the Boulevard deal came about at the same time that the Royals were transitioning from Anheuser-Busch to MillerCoors as their official beer partner. While Boulevard’s presence at Kauffman Stadium obviously predates the deal, Boulevard’s local distributor, Central States Beverage, happens to be allied with MillerCoors.
Baseball stadiums have plenty of conflicts where beer is concerned: It would be hard to see the Milwaukee Brewers pushing New Glarus’s Spotted Cow at Miller Park outside of their new Local Brews bar (which also sells MillerCoors and Leinenkugel products), or the Colorado Rockies having an official craft beer at Coors Field, where Coors already operates the Sandlot Brewery brewpub, the birthplace of Blue Moon.
It’s also worth pointing out that this kind of sponsorship isn’t free. Boulevard produces about 200,000 barrels per year, which is large by craft brewing standards but a fraction of what Budweiser — or even Sam Adams — produces. Boulevard is also owned by the Belgian brewery Duvel Moortgat, which owns Ommegang and Firestone Walker. A major league sponsorship deal might make sense for another super-regional brewer (say, Great Lakes in Cleveland), but it’s out of the budget of all but a select few craft brewers.
The Boulevard-Royals tie-up is definitely a win for Royals fans and a sign of craft beer’s continued coolness and clout. Others who love baseball and craft beer will be looking toward Kansas City with envy. To find something similar, they’ll have to head to a minor-league park — perhaps to watch the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the Double A farm team for the San Francisco Giants, whose official beer, Chin Music Amber Lager, is brewed by the nearby Center of the Universe Brewing, or the short-season Hillsboro Hops, whose mascot, Barley, an anthropomorphized hop cone, appears on bottles from BridgePort Brewing, Oregon’s oldest craft brewery.
Or maybe they’ll just root a little harder for the Royals — and against the Cardinals — this season.
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