SABMiller takeover could affect sports sponsorship

Professional sports teams, leagues and broadcasters can no longer get drunk on beer – or at least count on the hundreds of millions of dollars brewers have lavished on branding each year.

Anheuser-Busch InBev NV’s proposed purchase of SABMiller Plc would result in the company controlling about half of the industry’s profits, giving it more money and less competition in sponsorship negotiations. That concentrated pricing power will drive down beer spending, which ranks among the sports market’s most lucrative categories.

“You can’t rely on beer anymore,” said Tony Ponturo, a former vice-president of sports marketing at Anheuser-Busch.

The sale would continue a wave of consolidation, in which some of the largest brewers have either teamed up or merged. That includes the United States joint venture between SABMiller and Molson Coors Brewing Co, followed one year later by InBev’s 2008 purchase of Anheuser-Busch for $60.8-billion.

Ponturo, who left Anheuser-Busch shortly after that sale, said an AB InBev purchase of SABMiller could cut beer sponsorship spending as much as 20%. The result will be a “massive, massive” shift, according to Chris Pearlman, executive vice-president of sales at Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment, a marketing firm.

“They’ll have the pick of the litter, and the money to do whatever they want,” Pearlman said. “Having said that, they won’t have to pay top dollar because nobody can come near them. They don’t have to bid against themselves.”

SABMiller is open to discussing the offer from larger rival AB InBev, which would unite the world’s two biggest beer-makers, with combined annual sales of about $81-billion. No proposal has yet been received and there can be no certainty that an offer will be made, the company said on Wednesday.

Beer is tied with food for the most active category in Major League Baseball sponsorships, according to Chicago-based consultant and research firm IEG. It ranks third in National Basketball Association categories, fifth with the National Hockey League and sixth with the National Football League (NFL).

Those four largest North American sports leagues have an annual sponsorship spend of $2.9-billion, according to IEG’s 2014 year-end report. Though IEG doesn’t have a reliable number for the size of the beer spending, it estimates that AB InBev and SABMiller represent more than half. Last year, AB InBev spent more than $15-million for 210 seconds of advertising time during the Super Bowl, according to Kantar Media.

If an SABMiller sale happens, teams and networks will have to look elsewhere for revenue, turning to such categories as insurance, food, vehicles and banks.

“If you’re a league, a team or a broadcaster, you’re opening up to other categories for growth,” said Ponturo, now chief executive of Ponturo Management Group.

AB InBev, the NFL’s second-most active sponsor behind Gatorade, is in the fifth of a six-year, $1.2-billion contract with the league, according to AdWeek. Ponturo said the company probably wants to see those terms reduced to renew the contract.

“If they have SABMiller bought or even distracted, they can probably bring that down, because there won’t be another beer willing to spend that kind of money,” he said.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said executives weren’t available to comment on the ramifications of a proposed AB InBev purchase.

There may also be opportunities for smaller brands within the new mega-company, Ponturo said. In a global football deal, for example, the new company could use Peroni in advertising for football games featuring the Italian national team, then use Pilsner Urquell for Czech Republic games.

Pearlman said there are too many variables to fully understand a deal’s potential effect on sponsorships. For example, who becomes the sponsorship decider at the new company? If the people who negotiated previous deals for either SABMiller or AB InBev are replaced, that could change the company’s relationship with properties and their ideology moving forward.

There’s also the question of what the new company may need to sell off to make the deal a reality – MillerCoors is a good bet. Either way, one larger beer company will be able to assert its influence on the market.

“There’s a little less leverage for a property to say, ‘If you don’t want it, I have two other guys who do,’?” Pearlman said. – © 2015 Bloomberg News and Scott Soshnick

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