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Making the Case – Why Local Matters

This is a case of beer. We are making an argument or case about something. See the connection?

On Friday, Toronto FC announced a major sponsorship deal with beer giant Budweiser for the upcoming Major League Soccer season. The five-year deal will give Budweiser and its sub-brands Bud Light, Stella Artois, Alexander Keith's and Michelob Ultra pouring rights at BMO Field, plus many promotional events in and around the stadium including tailgates and a new Budweiser “King Club” beer garden.

This is a disturbing move for North American soccer, which despite a league-wide sponsorship agreement with Budweiser, has been surprisingly open to the craft beer revolution going on in North America. In recent years, clubs such as the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas have entered into deals with Coors and Budweiser respectively.

Meanwhile teams like Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, and Sporting KC grow closer to local craft beer brands to increase the mantra of “local soccer, local beer”.

That's the natural extension of the Free Beer Movement way. Go local. Go local soccer. Go local beer. Go local economies. If you're making the decision to support live, local North American soccer you ought to be making the same commitment to local businesses. The more dollars we can keep in our communities the more we sustain them. 

If you work in the front office of a North American soccer team that chooses this approach then you've decided that authenticity is a central tenent of your organization. That community, the people that live and work in the town, are your most important assest and they need to be embraced and their wants and needs respect.

As soccer pushes closer to the mainstream of our sports scene the siren song of “major sponsorship agreements” has and will continue to tempt the front offices of clubs around MLS. Obviously the league has already attracted dozens of major partners that pump millions of dollars into the game, but now the individual clubs are attracting interest from big-time sponsors as well; the ones that make the game-day decisions: the “party zones” fans will occupy before the matches, the “meet-the-player” events they'll attend in-between games, and, lastly, and most importantly, the beer they'll drink inside the stadium.

The biggest question of all is whether or not this deal is for the benefit of Toronto FC or any other North American soccer club in the long-term. Certainly TFC's partnership injects a much-needed marketing boost for a team with slouching ticket sales. Since their founding in 2006, this Canadian side has never made the playoffs. In season's past the TFC faithful have weathered this disappointing storm, but cracks are showing. Last season their average attendance dropped to 18,681 from 20,267 in 2011. On television, seat backs have been more and more common as Toronto slumped to dead last in the league.

If you worked in the front office of a team like Toronto FC would you look a marketing gift horse like Budweiser in the mouth? Would you choose the long-term “potential” revenue growth of building authenticity with your fanbase or the fast-track, short-term cash grab (especially as a team like TFC is hemorrhaging dollars at the gate)?

It's a tough call.

Consider the pieces of the TFC-Bud deal:

– Budweiser will launch a commemorative Toronto FC-branded Budweiser aluminum bottle at LCBO locations (Liquor Control Board of Ontario… where you HAVE to buy your booze) in the Greater Toronto Area beginning February 25 (An aside: If you're a TFC fan there's definitely some novelty in drinking a beer with your team's crest on it. But if you're NOT a TFC fan… what's the incentive to buy the TFC-branded four pack instead of, say, a plain, 30 pack? Surely there are few people who, in walking into their local LCBO, will spy the TFC Bud and exclaim “Oh my! We have a local soccer team? I never knew!”)

– Having Budweiser “host a pre-game celebration at BMO Field with the Budweiser Big Rig (a mobile bar), live music and great giveaways”

– Fans will “enjoy food and beverages at the new Budweiser King Club at the North End of BMO Field”

– “For those watching at select bars across the GTA, Budweiser will extend the excitement with TFC prizing and giveaways for fans”

– Budweiser has committed to donating over US$350,000 to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s (owners of TFC) Team Up Foundation, which funds charities that support children through sport.

The irony of Budweiser's approach is all of this is a Free Beer Movement wet dream. Each one of the elements of Budweiser's approach to marketing soccer through beer is the cornerstone of the FBM Philosophy.

With one, very large exception. Where's the authenticity? Where's the local connection? Why does this stink of a big, glossy PR campaign without a soul? This deal has all the style with none of the substance.

This isn't the direction we want for North American soccer. Given that MLS and the accompanying lower-division soccer pyramid is young we've got a unique opportunity. Given the intense amount of passion associated with soccer and for one's club we've got a unique opportunity. Given the relative small size of soccer and it's “nitch” corner of the sport-scape we've got a unique opportunity.

A unique opportunity to shape North American soccer in the proper way.  The local way.

North American soccer is in the unique position of being built while our culture, as a whole, is at a crossroads, where one path leads towards the “big box” approach: bigger, louder, inflexible, more santized OR the “local” approach: community-based, responsive, innovative, risk-taking, more subtle… kind of like how most would describe soccer as well.

Instead of locking itself in with Budweiser because they throw a good party with bad beer TFC should be looking to partner with craft breweries (and other local businesses) like Steam Whistle, Bellwoods Brewery, Junction Craft Brewing, Kesington Brewing Company, Great Lakes Brewing Company, Amsterdam Brewing Company, or Mill Street Brew Pub (thanks to several people on Twitter for the Toronto craft beer recommendations). The point is that there are over a dozen of craft brewers in the Toronto area that Reds fans most likely have an authentic connection to (and make a decent brew) and could partner in some capacity with their local team.

Yeah, none of these breweries could park a mobile “big rig” bar in the BMO Field parking lot or produce branded TFC aluminum bottles, but they certainly would communicate the idea that local and quality is a paramount focus for the here, now, and future of Toronto's soccer scene. That's something, especially in dire times for TFC's fan base, that they'd like to hear.

Ultimately that's what North American soccer should be about. A fan bleeds his or her local colors and they damn well should be able to drink a local beer in their stadium.

Tags: Beer, Major League Soccer, Making The Case, The Best of Both Worlds

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