The newest global partner of the Olympic movement is international brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev. The company announced it is joining the International Olympic Committee’s TOP program through 2028, giving it sponsorship rights to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris, Milano-Cortina and Los Angeles, as well as to more than 200 National Olympic Committees.
AB InBev becomes the 15th current TOP sponsor, joining Airbnb, Alibaba, Allianz, Atos, Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Deloitte, Intel, Omega, Panasonic, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, Toyota and Visa.
The agreement, which will see the Corona Cero zero alcohol beer brand become the Olympic Games global beer sponsor, represents both a momentous change on the business front and a test of whether attitudes towards certain types of sponsors have shifted.
It first signifies how dramatically the brewing industry has changed in the nearly 40 years since the IOC established its worldwide sponsorship platform. When deciding in the mid-1980s which categories would be sold internationally versus those that would be reserved for local partnerships at the games and national team levels, beer and its thousands of local and national brands was easily placed in the latter camp.
But beginning in the 1990s, consolidation created the “big four” international brewing concerns—AB InBev, SABMiller, Heineken and Carlsberg—culminating with the acquisition of number two SABMiller by number one AB InBev in 2016.
While there remain numerous brands with strong ties to and loyalty from their countries of origin, many are controlled by conglomerates, the perfect condition for recasting a formerly local sponsorship category into a global one.
In addition to supporting Corona in the 180 countries where it is available, AB InBev will take advantage of its portfolio of locally relevant brands in activating its newest partnership. For example, it has designated low-carb, low-calorie Michelob Ultra as a lead brand for partnerships with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee/Team USA, as well as national governing bodies including USA Basketball and U.S. Soccer.
In addition, public response to the new deal will be worth watching, particularly to gauge whether “pro-health” interests protest this partnership in the same manner that ultimately caused McDonald’s Corp. to drop its decades-long TOP sponsorship mid-term in 2017.
While there is certain to be some online chatter among those unhappy with the link between beer and young athletes, the partnership likely will be in less danger of being attacked due to two key factors.
As a product available only to adults, beer does not carry the same responsibility to protect its consumers as a quick-service food chain that is wildly popular among children does.
Also, in the seven years since McDonald’s departure there appears to be greater awareness among consumers that most B2C sponsorships exist simply to promote the brand to the fans and viewers of the sport and not to imply that its products are an integral part of the training or performance of the athletes.