Numlock Sunday: Kate Bernot on how MLB rule changes are changing beer sales
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Kate Bernot, who wrote Change Up — Baseball Shrugs Off Pitch Clock’s Possible Blow to Beer Sales for Good Beer Hunting. Here's what I wrote about it:
Beer is a big seller for baseball clubs, with estimates ranging from $2 million to $8 million worth of beer sold per stadium. Major League Baseball’s off-season changes to rules have successfully made games shorter to the tune of around 25 minutes per game this season so far. Traditionally, ballparks keep selling booze until the middle of the seventh inning, but with brisker games that means that your typical ballpark could be missing out on $280,000 to $1.1 million worth of sales over the course of the season. Already four ball clubs — the Diamondbacks, Rangers, Twins and Brewers — are pushing that back into the eighth inning, and there’s hope that faster games will mean more fans showing up to the park in general.
Kate’s a great writer, and I particularly enjoy how she covers her beat, alcohol, from a cultural perspective, not just covering the day to day of the industry but how it reverberates across society.
We spoke about the MLB rule changes and what they mean for concessions, the big kerfluffle in beer and why the distributors are a real power, and the beer brands that are scrapping their product and in some cases starting from scratch in order to find new fans.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
All right, Kate, thanks so much for coming back on.
You bet. I am very excited to be back on.
It's been a very fascinating couple weeks and months on your beat. The beer industry is obviously always fun and compelling for a lot of different unique reasons, but I feel like it's been in the news quite a bit lately. I wanted to dive into some of these stories that you've been writing, the first of which comes to a fascinating reverberation in the beverage industry related to baseball changing its rules.
Yes. I think this is such a fascinating topic, because like you said, it's the reverberation of a kind of cultural shift that has nothing to do with beer on face, yet will likely have implications in terms of millions of dollars potentially in beer sales.
As any Major League Baseball fan will know, this year the MLB introduced a number of pace of play rule changes, chief among them, the pitch clock. Love it or hate it, we have it, and games are, as a result, noticeably shorter — 25 to 30 minutes on average shorter than they were last season, and that means 25 to 30 minutes fewer beer sales. My question was, how much does this matter? Are concessionaires and Major League Baseball teams concerned about this? What's at stake here? And now that we're a little bit into the season, we can actually start answering some of those questions.
What are we seeing?
When the season started, teams were largely waving off these concerns, right? "Oh, this pace of play is just going to be a better game, and we're not worried about beer sales," and it hasn't mattered much in Minor League Baseball, which has the pitch clock for generally longer than Major League Baseball has. It hasn't been a huge issue there. We're not worried.
Well, enough teams were worried once the season got underway that four of them, I believe to date, have extended beer sales past the traditional cutoff point, which is the beginning of the eighth inning. Now you are, in at least four ballparks, able to buy beer into the eighth inning.
Of course, these teams are saying, "We take public health very seriously, safety very seriously. We're monitoring. We added an additional security," et cetera, et cetera, because of course, the reason for the beer sales cutoff is that they don't want folks drinking a lot and driving home drunk. The fact that at least four teams have made the switch indicates that there was a noticeable impact on beer sales, and they weren't just going to let that money go down the drain.
It is interesting, because I'm in New York, and those rules always seemed like they were designed for a section of fans that could be described as a minority: people who would get too drunk and also drive to Yankee Stadium, when there are several perfectly good subways there. I recently wondered how they were going to thread that needle, and the answer is it seems like they're just tired of that needle.
Yeah. I mean, I actually was also a Yankees fan growing up and went to a number of games in the Bronx. I hear you. I'm like, man, hell is driving to a Yankee game. This is sort of a team-by-team decision, right? Each stadium has its own dynamics in terms of transportation, in terms of how rowdy fans get, in terms of when in the game people are drinking. This does feel like something that might be best left to teams, as it is now. Major League Baseball has no position on when beer sales get cut off.
Yeah, this isn't mandated from on high. This is up to every team to decide. I think teams know their fans best, and obviously, teams do have squads to monitor fan behavior and things like that. So, one team in particular that I heard from the Texas Rangers was saying, "Look, if we're seeing an uptick in unruly behavior, obviously we would reconsider this decision." It's something to keep an eye on and probably something that's going to vary from ballpark to ballpark.
I want to go a little bit national now. I know that it's been a very kind of complicated couple weeks in beer when it comes to intersections with culture. Bud Light specifically included a trans creator in one of their ad accounts, and that got lots of the darker corners of the internet acting rather weird. We did see AB InBev earnings come in, and there was no boycott hit, but I guess I just want to talk to you a little bit about what was that? How did that actually affect the way that people in the industry are operating?
Oof, how much time do you got?
Yeah. Man, candidly, I hate this story for so many reasons. I mean, I don't begrudge you obviously bringing it up. It is 100 percent the biggest story in beer of the last month, maybe even few months. It's the thing that everyone's aunt, uncle, mother is suddenly aware of because it's on the nightly news. It's a huge story. Bud Light worked with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney on a relatively small-scale marketing promo, and this just blew up. Obviously, lots of reactionary backlash to it.
Yes, as you mentioned, the earnings call this week, it wasn't as though ABI is imploding. Where this is dangerous for ABI's bottom line. And there's a whole other question of whether this is dangerous for ABI from an alienating consumers perspective, from a failure to evolve the Bud Light brand to meet new demographics and younger drinkers, and to kind of go outside of its really core base that's been dwindling for a long time.
That aside, the immediate backlash and calls for a boycott, where that could really harm ABI is in its relationships with its wholesalers, which are extremely important and largely shielded from the public view. I don't think most people in this country spend very much time thinking about beer wholesalers, if they even know they exist. But beer wholesalers are massively important, especially for ABI. The supplier relationship with the wholesaler is everything to ABI. Even though ABI only outright owns a very small and federally capped, for antitrust reasons, percentage of its distributors, it has very meaningful deep business relationships with its wholesalers, and a number of those wholesalers were deeply uncomfortable with this trans marketing thing.
They're a notoriously conservative bunch, if I recall correctly, just from previous conversations.
One hundred percent, yes. And ABI heard from them. They fielded angry calls, emails, whatever, from these wholesalers who were like, "What the heck is this? And don't you know who your drinkers are?" et cetera, et cetera. That I think is why we saw ABI pull its head back like a turtle into its shell after this happened. I mean, the company was silent for a number of weeks, and then issued the most mealy-mouthed, nothing burger of a statement afterwards.
They are just petrified of alienating their wholesalers, which now they're in a position where they've kind of done that, can't really take it back, but also, they're not coming out in support of their partnership either. It's just this gross middle ground that seems to make no one happy. But long term, I still don't believe we'll see a massive impact from this whole situation in a year from now in terms of ABI's bottom line, but what it may do is turn even more people off the brand in a way.
Maybe not in a way that has an immediate sales effect, but for the long-term health of the brand.
Those long-term healths of brands are, I would say in the beer industry at this point, kind of volatile. You actually were just telling me earlier about how reinventing brand identity is kind of a fairly common thing. You shouted out two companies that were attempting to do it, because there's a real desperation to remain relevant in such a diversified market as beer.
Yeah, absolutely, and I mean, a relatively — in beer time — old brand like Bud Light, which really has been around for decades and is the number one selling beer in America, is especially vulnerable. It's a brand that's kind of been sluggish for a number of years. It's rapidly losing ground to Modelo Especial, which if current trends continue, Modelo will overtake Bud Light by 2030 to become the bestselling beer by dollar sales in America.
Yeah. So, Bud Light sees its vulnerability. You mentioned some other flagships that are also trying to reignite that spark. This year, Boston Beer Company reformulated and relaunched Boston Lager with a Super Bowl commercial, and a bunch of marketing went behind that, new recipe, new packaging, and New Belgium did the same with its iconic Fat Tire, which is no longer an amber ale. So, really big shake-ups for these legacy brands and flagships for pretty large companies, because yeah, those are generally not as strong of sellers as they were a few years ago. Everybody who's got these legacy brands on their hands seems to be feeling the heat, and looking for ways to reintroduce themselves to new drinkers.
Yeah, whether that's just making them into a cider or seltzer, or as you were mentioning with Boston Lager and Fat Tire, just completely changing the product at every fundamental level.
Boston Lager is still recognizable as an amber colored lager. But yeah, I mean, Fat Tire was amber in color, and is now golden. My husband is a huge OG Fat Tire fan, and when I broke the news to him, and showed him the new can and he poured it, it was like, "This is unrecognizable to me as the beer that I like."
Not like it's not good. I mean, it's a delicious new formulation; it's just not what you expected if you grew up with the other one. But that's a risk that brands are not only willing to take, but sort of have to take. If you see years and years of declining sales, you’ve got to do something, or you give up on your flagship, right?
Yeah. I think that the evolution is just such an interesting thing, because you can look in the nonalcoholics out of the aisle and you can kind of see on some level, there's Pepsi, and there's Coke, but then they are really trying to basically, just through creative destruction, destroying Sierra Mist to make something new, right? I—
Haven't thought about Sierra Mist in a long time. Thank you for reminding me that Sierra Mist exists.
It actually doesn't anymore though, that's the thing! They just killed it.
All right. Well, there we go. That's why I hadn't thought about it in a while.
I know that some congratulations are in order, that you are leading the lifestyle area at Good Beer Hunting now, and I think that's really interesting, because I think that beer is not just a consumer packaged good. Alcohol plays a big role in society. What do you see as being some of the most exciting angles on your new gig?
Well, thank you. I am super excited about this lifestyle editor role as well, which is not just a new role for me, but a new role at Good Beer Hunting. I think exactly to your point, it's sort of Good Beer Hunting's recognition that for most people, beer, or any beverage, is not the focal point of the day, it is an accompaniment to something else that you are doing, and something that enhances whatever other activity you happen to be doing.
So, starting off, I will be heading up our outdoor lifestyle coverage, which occurs through our vertical called Olly Olly, and that is a vertical that is underwritten by Oskar Blues. Oskar Blues is the brand that is mountain biking in Colorado, and getting out with your Dale's Pale Ale. That is a perfect example of a beer as a lifestyle brand.
But I think my mandate in the lifestyle editor role is to figure out not just outdoor coverage, but what other areas of lifestyle does beer converge with? We know it converges with music, we know it converges with food, and with art, but I'm really interested in also exploring maybe some kind of underappreciated areas where beer fits in really well.
Beer and wrestling have a massive overlap, beer and baseball. I think there's tons of possibility there, and I welcome the chance to maybe dive into some of the weirder ones, and publish stories that people haven't heard yet. So, that's what I'm looking forward to, and yeah, we'll be fleshing all of that out in the months to come.
That's so cool. Well, Kate, thanks so much for coming back on, I really appreciate it. Where can folks find you, and where can they find your work?