Alcohol Industry Segmentation Offers NHL New Partner Opportunities

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NHL alcohol industry partnerships
Photo Credit: Sarah Stier-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL is altering how it partners with beverage companies.

As partnership deals come and go, the league is figuring out how to carve out more space in the alcohol industry as consumers themselves become equally segmented in what they drink. Beyond just beer and spirits, professional leagues are now branching into official partnerships within segments like the NHL’s partnerships in hard seltzer and shots.

As the NHL’s beer deal with MillerCoors and Molson Coors expired in June, it has given the league an opportunity to rework its partnerships in the alcohol industry. The NHL has partnership agreements in beer and liquor categories with Boston Beer, New Amsterdam Vodka and Jägermeister. Several other deals are expected in the coming months and Boston Beer is non-exclusive.

“We have a nice portfolio,” said Kyle McMann, NHL group vice president of integrated sales. “It’s an exciting time for the category as a whole as it transitions into a new form. We’ve tried to figure out how to best serve the fans and create swimlanes to reach and engage consumers.”

The league’s deal with MillerCoors and Molson Coors was for a reported $400 million, according to a New York Times article in 2011 when the deal was signed to replace Anheuser-Busch and Labatt. 

McMann declined to comment on how much revenue the league was generating in the overarching alcohol categories but noted that looking at the categories within the category separately helps create opportunities to have more than one partnership and create additional revenue opportunities.

Big alcohol sponsorships have long been a boon for leagues, said Matt Saler, vice president of sports marketing at imre. The combination of the companies’ deep pockets and leagues possessing the ideal audience generally make for natural integrations and great ROI, Saler said.

With those points in mind, Saler said it makes sense that partnerships with the beverage industry will begin to segment more in the future. He said an important aspect for brands will be authentic and innovative activations, as well as smart communication around the inherent risk of alcohol consumption messaging.

“With the categories separating, like seltzer and craft beer, it opens up the potential for new revenue streams and that’s only good for leagues and teams,” Saler said. “The key is, how do you break through the clutter – fans consume alcohol and forge strong connections in these moments.”

“So the critical element will be how they break through and differentiate themselves.”

As the MillerCoors sponsorship finished up this summer, it offered the ability for the league to diversify its partnerships in space as the alcohol industry as a whole has done since 2011 – looking at the rise in craft beer, seltzer, craft distilling and even more within each of those segments. 

For starters, league officials were able to carve out space to sign a non-exclusive, portfolio-wide deal with Boston Beer Co., makers of Sam Adams, and as the centerpiece of the deal name its hard seltzer brand, Truly, as the league’s official hard seltzer. The deal came less than a month after the NFL named Anheuser-Busch’s Bon & Viv its official hard seltzer.

Beyond the official hard seltzer designation, McMann said the Boston Beer portfolio offers the league plenty to play with, ranging from the Sam Adams line of beers to the newly-acquired Dogfish Head brand, along with Angry Orchard Hard Cider and Twisted Tea.

“The jewel is the hard seltzer,” McMann said. “It’s something we’re excited about. It’s the first national sponsorship [Boston Beer] has ever done. They’re no doubt amongst industry veterans in the category.”

Truly is the No. 2 hard seltzer brand, behind Mark Anthony Brands’ White Claw. McMann said there are synergies in the way the two parties see the potential to create additional scale in the “consumption occasion” of an NHL game.

For Boston Beer, McMann said the brand leaned into the league’s tailgate experience, as exemplified by the new Truly branding of the pregame festivities before the league’s U.S. outdoor games, this season with Winter Classic in Dallas, and Stadium Series in Colorado Springs.

New Amsterdam Vodka provides a base-level spirits partnership with the popular clear spirit and according to New Amsterdam director of marketing Michael Sachs, it’s the first vodka brand to be a league sponsor.

New Amsterdam has amped up its participation in the hockey realm with its Barstool Sports partnership, which has evolved into a collaboration on Pink Whitney, a pink lemonade-flavored vodka with the hosts of the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast. Pink Whitney has created plenty of demand amongst hockey fans and has started to infiltrate NHL arenas as well.

Sachs said there are 12 in-arena activations for Pink Whitney and currently working on a 13th.

“New Amsterdam Vodka’s partnerships with the NHL and Barstool Sports work side by side to reach our consumers through cultural touchpoints they care about most,” Sachs said. “We were presented with an opportunity where all three partners could intersect to amplify the collective power of our three brands and bring something of real value to excite our customers.”

READ MORE: Hard Seltzer Makes Its Way Into Tailgates with NFL Partnership

With Jägermeister, McMann said the league’s official shot stood out with countertop displays across the country last season.

As the league continues to look at those “swimlanes” in the alcohol industry, they likely will hit each respective preferred drink of fans, not just one type.

“We look at all these opportunities for consumption to the legal drinking audiences and we don’t want to diminish a vodka opportunity vs. a beer opportunity,” McMann said. “We want to partner with brands that create a story in their brand voice and add value for us.”