Swing and a Miss: Blue Jays and Craft Beer

As the Toronto Blue Jays wrapped up their series home opener on Sunday, baseball fans that attended the Rogers Centre on the weekend might not have noticed something missing from this year’s concession stands. No, I am not talking about Pizza Pizza no longer being offered (it was replaced by Scarborough based Pizza Nova), I am referring to Steam Whistle Brewing being dropped as a partner just one year into their existing partnership.

The Blue Jays brass states the termination is a result of Steam Whistle’s tweets about its Rogers Centre location, claiming they violated market agreements the Jays had with other brewers. Regardless of the details surrounding the nature of the contract termination, the Jays now are the only team in Major League Baseball (MLB) without at least one craft beer available at their home park. The Pittsburgh Pirates home field, PNC Park, offers 13 different craft beers. Looking at the Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA, they created a craft beer garden in Time Warner Cable Arena that features nine North Carolina breweries, with each brewery serving two types of beers. A concept like that might go a long way in sprucing up the monotony of the Rogers Centre, aka, “Concrete Convertible.”

Although this may appear to be minor news, I believe there is a missed opportunity to serve craft beer and provide a different fan experience than the corporate hosting affair of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Air Canada Centre. The Blue Jays fan demographics have shifted to a generation that is young, cool, and hip. The Rogers Centre is becoming the place to be on a Friday night. “It’s the best patio in the city, the best people-watching in the city” and “it’s outside, it’s social,” remarked two fans last year.  After the game, these young fans can be found donning their Blue Jays gear at the King Street bars.

As of June 2013, Ontario Craft Breweries had 53 operating breweries in Ontario on its list (believed to be 150 operating craft brewers in Canada). Current growth rates across retail channels are over 10% per year, and in 2012 sales in Ontario reached approximately $210 million. It is no secret that Ontario boasts a rising craft beer industry. I thought it would be interesting to compare Blue Jays fan demographics versus craft beer demographics.

Blue Jays Infographic

It appears that the Jays fan demographics align well with those of the craft beer drinker.  In a study of Canadian Millenials (currently aged 18-31) 60% of them stated they would go out of their way to buy a craft beer. Adding to that, both male and female Millenials generally prefer craft beer to larger brewers. The core Blue Jays consumers (50%) are currently Millenials. Therefore, it can be applied that the vast majority of Blue Jays fans who attend games would most likely enjoy a craft beer (or two).

This discontent is being felt around town. In a recent Toronto Star poll of over 1,100 people, 90% of voters stated they would like to have a choice regarding craft beer.  A change.org petition has just under 2,000 people signed up supporting its push for Ontario craft beer in the Rogers Centre.

We often stress that sponsorships that are natural and well aligned create the perfect partner synergies, resulting in a win-win-win scenario (sponsor-property-consumer). Are the Blue Jays to blame for accepting the highest bid (from Budweiser)? No, that is in their right as a property, and it makes business sense. The three largest Canadian breweries are foreign-owned, and now there are actually zero beers in the Rogers Centre that are actually made by Canadian-owned companies – interesting for a team that is trying to grow its brand nationally.

Ontario Craft Beer

It is clear that craft beers cannot compete with the purchasing power of the major brands, but it does not mean that they do not have a place in sporting venues. Would it make sense for someone like Ontario Craft Brewers to combine purchasing power to get in the Rogers Centre (similar to the North Carolina breweries)? Or even a Toronto-based craft brewer, given 35% of fans live in Toronto? A combined craft brewer partnership may not be feasible, but it certainly raises interesting questions. Would it make sense for the Rogers Centre to want this kind of OCB consortium as the secondary pour on-site? From a fan experience perspective, demographic info says yes. From a relationship management perspective with Budweiser, probably not.

In the end, what does this all mean? Fans will still attend games. The 19+ crowd will still grumble over the high price of beer (which they would do, even if it was craft beer). However, with all that being said, going to a sporting event is an experience, regardless of what happens on the field. The Blue Jays front office might have just missed an opportunity to provide the best possible experience for its fan base, while also showing its Toronto, Ontario, and Canadian pride.

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