Sports

Cold Beer Not Here

Would professional sports totally collapse in a world without brews?

Plastic cup of beer at a sports game.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

In this series, our sage referee answers fascinating, vexing, and/or bizarre sports hypotheticals and conundrums. To submit a question to the Sports Authority, email sportsauthority@slate.com.

Daniel Waldron asks: Would professional sports in America collapse without beer (sales, ads, sponsors)?

I shudder to think about the precipitating incident that would result in a beer ban across pro sports. Concession-stand suds have been a contributing factor in countless stadium fights and at least one full-fledged riot, but I’d wager it’s more likely that ISIS will get an NFL team than that leagues will decide to halt beer sales and partnerships.

Realism is not the name of the game for the Sports Authority. However, if we can get real for just a brief moment, there’s too much beer money tied up in big-time sports for things to change; Mr. Met could get a DUI in the bullpen cart and we’d all just look the other way. Consider that Anheuser-Busch InBev struck a $1.4 billion deal with the NFL more than two years ago to make Bud Light the league’s official beer sponsor through 2022. The company also pays MLB an estimated $40 million annually for similar rights, and MillerCoors’ seven-year agreement with the NHL is worth nearly $400 million. Those are huge chunks of revenue, and that’s not even factoring in concession sales.

At sporting events, beer is as much a painkiller as a refreshment. Last season, the 0–16 Cleveland Browns averaged 63,882 paying fans at their eight home games. (The actual turnstile count was presumably much lower, but the NFL doesn’t release those numbers.) Forcing tens of thousands of people to watch the quarterback stylings of DeShone Kizer without giving them access to a palatable anesthetic is simply unethical.

The relationship between professional sports and the beer industry is a symbiotic one. Beer makes the games go down more smoothly, and, in turn, athletics have ginned up enough demand to turn breweries into corporate powerhouses. How else could manufacturers afford the cutting-edge R&D departments that have provided us with breakthroughs like mountains that turn blue when the can is cold?

The Super Bowl–beer-ad industrial complex is an important economy in its own right, one that employs countless Clydesdales, talking dogs, and supersexy bikini babes. The Budweiser frogs put tens of thousands of tadpoles through college—Dartmouth, no less—thanks to their commercial appearances.

Still, it’s enticing to imagine a beerless sports future. You’d never hear “dilly dilly” again, bathroom lines would be nonexistent, and renditions of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley Field would improve mightily.

Let’s begin by establishing the parameters of our hypothetical. In this scenario, beer would be the only alcoholic beverage that gets kiboshed. That means no more official partnerships or ads during games, and it certainly means no more delicious tallboys delivered to your seat.

While leagues would take significant financial hits if they halted their official beer sponsorships, these blows would be far from fatal. In 2017, the NFL posted a projected revenue of $14 billion. Take away its sweet Bud Light deal, and that haul goes down to $13.8 billion. That’s still more than enough cash to ensure Jerry Jones would be able to fly his personal glasses cleaner to all eight road games.

This kind of ban is not unprecedented. In France, Loi Évin (Évin’s law) has prohibited alcohol advertisements across a variety of venues, including sporting events, since 1991. When Anheuser-Busch lobbied the French government to allow it to sponsor the 1998 World Cup, the company got stonewalled. According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, the beer giant’s absence didn’t leave a financial void, as electronics manufacturer Casio stepped up to provide that missing cash.

If the free market can work like that in France, imagine what would happen in our own Randian dystopia. Who needs a beer partnership when you could strike a deal with Latisse, the official eyelash-growth medication of the NFL? (Note: Latisse is not actually the official eyelash-growth medication of the NFL, though Bill Belichick has been putting out some real Betty Boop vibes recently.)

While the sponsorship hole would likely be filled fairly easily, a dry in-game experience would cost teams millions of dollars. A 2013 report about concessions at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium gives a sense of just how integral cold ones are to live sporting events. Beer sales accounted for roughly $500,000 in revenue per home game. Considering there are 256 regular-season games per NFL season, that’s about $128 million each year (assuming each stadium sells a comparable amount of beer). Baseball would take an even greater hit, as Major League Baseball features 2,430 games per season, albeit with much lower average per-game attendance. Across all major sports, it’s conceivable to think that in-game beer sales exceed $1 billion. That’s a lot of Bud Light, even at inflated stadium prices.

Of course, people wouldn’t just stop drinking altogether. In 1985, the U.K. passed the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act, a law that prohibits fans from consuming alcohol within view of the pitch, and under which violators are subject to jail time. According to the Guardian, this law has created some unintended consequences, as “fans are indirectly encouraged to drink as much as they can, as quickly as they can before the match and at half time, to compensate for not being allowed to do so while the match is taking place.”

Booze finds a way. As anyone who has tailgated outside a dry college stadium can attest, a ban on drinking at the game doesn’t make for a teetotaling crowd.

How might fans adjust to a brewless universe? Slate’s own Justin Peters, who is entering his 19th year as a Wrigley Field beer vendor, believes bleacher bums would turn to refreshing margaritas. However, when pressed with the prospect of increased hangovers, arrests, and hospital stays that would inevitably come with all those increased BACs, he settled on another option.

“I bet that in a beerless world they would find a way to market wine,” he says, adding that Wrigley now has a wine vendor. (“It threw me for a loop when I saw him at the playoffs last year,” Peters says.)

Even without a beer ban, younger generations are eagerly embracing vino (“Millennials Plan to Spend More Money on Wine Than Any Other Age Group,” reads a Wine Access press release), and so the thought of bleacher bums downing chilled chardonnays under the hot sun isn’t totally ridiculous. Ultramacho football fans would try their best to hold out, but they would ultimately be forced to succumb given the NFL’s dreadful in-game experience. The toughest Raiders fan in the Black Hole is going to be five petite sirahs deep by the first TV timeout.

The Milwaukee Brewers would change their name to the “Vintners.” Bernie Brewer, meanwhile, would no longer slide into a mug of beer, instead taking a plunge into a nice malbec, this despite the fact he would emerge looking like he’d just stumbled away from a murder scene. (Say, has anyone seen the Phillie Phanatic around recently?)

The Brewers’ mascot wouldn’t be the only one with blood on his hands. While the environmental toll of wine production is still being studied, we know the effects may be staggering. According to a 2003 study of an Italian vineyard, the production of one bottle of wine pumped 16 grams of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. One can only imagine the ecological nightmare we’d have on our hands if American sports fans were forced to chug vino instead of beer.

Next time you see a shirtless guy stumble from row ZZ all the way down to the box seats, cut that beer drinker some slack. We only have one planet, after all, and he’s just doing his part.

Previously in Sports Authority

How Long Would It Take the Golden State Warriors to Score 20 Points Against Five Ordinary Bros?