It’s Friday, 18th November 2022. Just two days before the start of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the host country of Qatar announced a decision that has been looming for months – there would not be any beer sales in the stadiums or the fan zones during the tournament. The outcome was a gut punch to Budweiser, which paid $75 million  to be the exclusive beer of the World Cup.
The mass media in the West focused on the cultural clash of civilizations represented by the Qatari’s beer ban. However, on a more sentimental level, this was an attack on a partnership that dates back to the time of Queen Victoria.
The brewing industry developed the sport of football by being the first backer of the many football clubs emerging in the second half of the 19th Century in Britain .
Their relationship was going beyond financial patronage. Football was the sport of the working class, while beer was the go-to alcoholic beverage. Thus, brewery owners saw the development of professional football clubs during the period as a natural part of their business since football and beer were distinctive elements of working-class culture.
Beer’s association with the sport is not only related to adverts or financial benefactors. As an alcoholic drink consumed in large quantities, while it is readily available in every pub or bar, beer became the drink of choice for the football hooligan culture of the ’70s and early ‘80s.
The government of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s came with a series of measures o tackle hooliganism. One targeting the link between sport and alcohol was the prevention of the sale of beer at football games – a rule that is still in place today . A legislative barrier was built between beer and sports, but it did not end their relationship – it merely moved the place to enjoy beer away from the stadium.
Football was not the only sport where beer became an intrinsic part of the culture. In the late 19th century, the United States was forming its own professional sports leagues. The National League became the dominant professional league for baseball, but it had a strict rule against serving alcohol at the games. In 1881 the National League even expelled the financially struggling Cincinnati Red Stockings franchise for selling beer at their games .
The reaction of the Red Stockings team was to form their own league with other fellow Midwestern American cities. The American Association, as it became known, aimed to fix the unnecessarily strict rules of the National League. The sale of alcohol was its key selling point .
In its inaugural season, the American Association outearned its competitor, but that proved to be only a short-term success, as within a decade, the pro-beer League folded . However, some teams joined the National League and eventually laid the foundation of Major League Baseball .
The imprint of the American Association expanded beyond the franchise representation – since 1892, the National League reversed its decision to sell beer in the ballparks . Thus, beer became vital to the culture of America’s pastime.
Commercialization through sponsorship and adverts
As professional sports grew bigger in the 20th and the 21st centuries, so did the involvement of the brewing industry. However, their role transitioned – they used to be the benefactors that owned and controlled teams. Then, beer companies became the sponsors.
The change in the approach shows that the brewers preferred the association with sports due to entertainment rather than to be stuck in the tedious administration.
Beer’s adverts and sponsorships were everywhere. The goal for the brewers was to gain exclusivity that would allow bringing brand recognition. Examples include the Danish Carlsberg appearing on the jerseys of Liverpool Football Club , the American Coors sponsoring the name of the ballpark of the Colorado Rockies ever since the stadium was built , or Anheuser-Busch’s over 30 years of exclusivity to be the only alcohol company with rights to advertise during the Super Bowl, the most watched sports event in the US .
Anheuser-Busch relinquished those rights with the NFL in 2023, which permitted its competitors to pay at least $6 million for 30-second advertising spots during the Super Bowl . Thus, the correlation between beer and sports still goes strong and brings financial gains to players, teams, and the TV channels that broadcast their games.
Still, some have resisted the money coming from beer – predominantly Muslim countries where the strict laws related to the Islamic faith have halted the connection in its inception. Thus, the one real limitation for beer to become a complement to sports is faith-based legislation.
However, the brewing industry has shown a desire to adapt to the preferences of non-alcoholic drinkers, such as Islam believers or those who do it as a lifestyle choice. This is done through the new frontier for the industry – alcohol-free beer. The aim is to retain the recognition of the brand and to still connect to sports fans via advertising .
The promotion of Budweiser’s non-alcoholic beer was the company’s plan to navigate the hostile landscape of a World Cup in a country where its general business model is taboo. Thus, beer makers have shown their ability to adapt to keep themselves close to their target audience of sports lovers.
In the first game of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the host nation of Qatar lost to Ecuador. However, neither the lavish opening ceremony nor the football highlights were trending. Just before halftime, while Ecuador had already achieved a comfortable lead of two goals, their fans had started a brand chant unrelated to the football game: ‘We want beer’ .
The Qataris got what they wanted – a tournament that followed Sharia law with no alcohol. But the Ecuadorian supporters showed the entire world that you could remove the beer from the stadium, but not from the hearts of the fans. It’s safe to say that beer and sports will continue to co-exist.
I am a passionate beer connoisseur with a deep appreciation for the art and science of brewing. With years of experience tasting and evaluating various beers, I love to share my opinions and insights with others and I am always eager to engage in lively discussions about my favorite beverage.