Tuesday, June 17, 2003

To the list of life’s great philosophical head scratchers — the chicken and the egg, the sound of one hand clapping, the green lighting of an “Emeril!” sitcom — add the following: Is drinking beer an excuse to watch sports?

Or is watching sports an excuse to drink beer?

“That’s a tough one,” says Kevin Grace, a University of Cincinnati professor and an expert on the history of beer and baseball. “That sort of sounds like a Zen proposition. I don’t know. I think each of us has to reach enlightenment on our own.”

Beer and sports. Sports and beer. From the bleachers to the couch, from six-packs to the Philadelphia 76ers’ in-arena brewery, the two go together like summer and sunscreen. Popcorn and cinema. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez — who, in the manner of countless Hollywood couples before them, will undoubtedly grow old and fat together. Well, maybe not fat.

Still, in an athletic world in which stadiums are named for beer barons and even the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has an official brew, the question remains: Why suds? Why sports?

Why … Bud Bowl I-IV?

(And no, “tastes great” won’t do. Nor will “less filling.” But thanks.)

“I don’t need an excuse to drink beer,” says Julie Bradford, editor of All About Beer magazine. “But with sports, it’s a question of pacing. These are long spectator occasions. You don’t want something strong that’s going to render you, um, incapable of appreciating the whole of the game. Wine will get you in trouble, and spirits even more so. Although I hear the Kentucky Derby is pretty fun.”

True enough. But a bit lacking, ontologically speaking. If enlightenment is our goal — well, that and a generous buzz — then let us begin at the temple of sports and suds: The ballpark. Or, for our purposes, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Take me out to the beer game

With its cozy, retro-inspired design, Baltimore’s beloved stadium is one of baseball’s finest. More to the point, it’s also a red-brick monument to malted refreshment, a suds delivery system to rival the venerable beer bong.

Along the open-air concourse, snack stations serve brew on tap. So does Boog’s famous barbecue grill — even though a dedicated beer stand offering bottles and cans rests some 20 feet away. Behind the food counters, only four entities are honored with neon signs. One is the Orioles. The others are Bud, Miller and Coors. Champions all.

In the stands, a small army of vendors (60 to 70 people, about half serving suds on a warm day) ensures that if you can’t come to the brew, the brew will come to you. According to vending supervisor Bruce Thompson, an industrious vendor can earn as much as $20,000 in a single season. Which, without even doing the tedious math, equals a whole lot of suds.

“Customers tip well on beer,” says vendor Keith Randall, an Orioles beer man since 1988. “If you’re buying a $3.50 soda, you’re only going to tip 50 cents. You’re mad that you’re paying that much. But with beer, people are used to tipping a dollar at bars and clubs.”

Randall pauses.

“Also, I think it’s because people are happy to drink in public.”

Behind the scenes, beer flows through the stadium like so much lifeblood. Really. According to concession director Kevin Ford, giant below-ground beer boxes (measuring about 800 square feet) supply the upper deck by pumping suds through chemically-cooled beer lines, some as long as 300 feet.

“I don’t want to talk in specifics,” says Ford, estimating beer makes up a quarter of the stadium’s total concession business. “But obviously, we go through a lot of beer.”

Just ask microbrew vendor Aaron Whitcomb. Back on the concourse, a middle-aged man in a Cooperstown windbreaker strolls up to Whitcomb’s stand. In a single gulp, he drains his half-full beer cup. Satisfied, he orders another.

“That’s his third,” Whitcomb says. “I’ve had one guy that’s been back four times already. With beer and baseball, people just want to have a good time. It’s like a bar atmosphere …”

A blonde woman interrupts, frazzled hair framing a quizzical look.

“Excuse me,” she says, squinting through her thick-rimmed glasses. “Do you know where I can get a coffee?”

Stumped, Whitcomb peers across the walkway. In the foreground, a man cradles three beer bottles; in the background, a hot dog station sells Bud and Miller Lite. Whitcomb looks to his left. Ice cream. He looks to his right. Amstel Light.

“Nah,” he replies. “I’m sorry.”

The woman walks away. Whitcomb watches her go, his countenance expressing a single thought: Coffee?

Tangled up in brew

At first glance, beer and sports seem like strange bedfellows — at best, a charmingly awkward couple; at worst, a match made on the Island of Dr. Moreau. After all, drunk and bloated is no way to go through a competitive game, let alone the robust life of a sportsman. Unless you’re playing quarters. Or happen to be David Wells.

While brew isn’t totally devoid of nutritional value — English and American distance runners once guzzled the stuff, and the phytochemicals in darker beers stymie age-related diseases — it acts as a diuretic, resulting in dehydration. Worse still, All About Beer reports brew also can interfere with the recovery process by hampering glycogen resynthesis in muscles and the liver.

Not that we know what hampered glycogen resynthesis entails. But it doesn’t sound good.

“It’s kind of hilarious to associate watching professional athletes, the epitome of physical prowess, with guzzling this high-caloric thing that goes right to your waist,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of media and pop culture at Syracuse University and an expert on leisure habits. “The only thing funnier would be to sit outside of a Bally’s and watch people exercise while drinking beer.”

Fortunately for all parties involved, the nexus of beer and sports has less to do with the people on the field than those in the stands. And probably John Daly. Indeed, when Harvard University released a study last year concluding college sports fans are more likely to binge drink than nonfans, it came as scant surprise. At least to anyone who has ever been to a Yankees-Orioles game. Or college, for that matter.

Should Harvard conduct a second study on professional sports fans, the results likely would be similar. Fact is, our entire athletic universe is tangled up in brew. On any given day, you can take in tennis’ Heineken Open. Catch the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, Busch Stadium or Coors Field. Or simply swill the official suds of the NFL (Coors), NBA (Budweiser) and NHL (Bud Light in the states, Labatt Blue in Canada).

By contrast, you can’t exactly watch the Kentucky Mashers take on the Tennessee Distillers at Johnnie Walker Coliseum. Let alone sip NASCAR’s co-branded merlot.

“Wine?” Thompson says. “Do you even need to ask? The thought of a chardonnay at a sporting event? Please.”

Win, lose or draw — futbol lovers drink brew, too — beer is the sports world’s common intoxicator, a drowner of sorrows and buoy of celebration. When Michael Waltrip won this year’s Daytona 500, his crew sprayed him with suds. At contests the world over, disapproving fans dump beer on players, coaches, even game officials — the latter a tragic instance of pouring good brew after bad. Within the boozy confines of Milwaukee’s old County Stadium, mascot Bernie Brewer celebrated home runs by slip-sliding into an oversized mug, perhaps mimicking the suds-happy spectators who once quaffed 60,000 cups of brew at Cleveland’s seminal 10-Cent Beer Night.

“It’s easier to let your inhibitions loose when you’re intoxicated,” says Orioles vendor Robert Didanato, a 20-year vet who met his wife while selling suds. “When you’re drinking, you start feeling the competition and the emotions more.”

Even away from the couch and the klieg lights, we remain a feeling people. A nation in thrall to beer league softball. To pool, bowling, darts. To hashing, whose guzzle ‘n’ jog devotees proudly call themselves “drinkers with a running problem.” We chug to sports and make sports of chugging (Beer Pong, Fuzzy Duck, numerous unprintables), to say nothing of Larry Eustachy.

To put it another way: What is golf if not an excuse to disregard open container laws?

Never mind beer goggles. Take a look around: We have brew blimps at every stadium, a championship trophy that resembles a giant beer stein (the Stanley Cup) and stock cars that look like four-wheel poptops (Rusty Wallace’s Miller Lite car). Naturally, the team that captures the Cup is expected to drink from it. By contrast, NASCAR champs aren’t expected to do tailpipe keg stands — though Miller did promise a free six-pack to every Daytona attendee over 21 years of age, provided Wallace won the race.

“The fans will be behind me,” Wallace proclaimed. “Who wouldn’t want to receive free Miller Lite?”

Who indeed? Consider the sudsy numbers: The pub at Philly’s First Union Center brews 36,160 gallons of beer annually. The Chicago Cubs sell 29,000 beers at each home game. During Super Bowl Week, national beer and wine sales rise 34 percent — the better to match a 50 percent sales jump for large bags of chips and nuts.

“Super Bowl Sunday is the great American secular holiday,” Thompson says. “Take away the football, and it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. But you could still have a party. Take away the beer, however, and you’ve got very little left.

“You’ve got a beverage of leisure and a favorite pastime. They’re destined to be together. Beer and sports were a match made in heaven.”

Heaven, of course, being Pittsburgh.

Quid pro quaff

In 1881, baseball’s National League outlawed ballpark beer sales, prompting Pittsburgh’s Denny McKnight to organize a rival league. Founded the very next year, the American Association — aka the “Beer and Whiskey League” — allowed the sale of alcohol, cementing the early ties between sports and suds.

Baltimore brewer Henry von der Horts fielded a team, as did Louisville’s Frank Fehr Brewing Company. The Cincinnati club, owned by the John Hauck Brewery, earned more than $4,000 a season selling brew. In St. Louis, owner Chris von der Ahe built a ballpark beer garden, the better to promote his saloon.

The formula was simple, borrowed from an 1870s Burke’s Beer ad featuring ballplayers Cap Anson and Buck Ewing: Men like baseball. Men like beer. Wouldn’t they stand to enjoy — and pay for — some combination of the two?

Presumably, the same logic led to sports’ subsequent introduction of scantily clad cheerleaders — and, much later, to Coors commercials celebrating suds, football … and twins. Who happen to be cheerleaders.

“Sport was seen as something for everyman, and the everyman drink was beer,” says Cincinnati’s Grace, whose paper “Masculinity, Moguls and Malt” covers the early history of beer and baseball.

“As early as the 1870s, you had ballplayers being used in beer ads. It was a natural fit like SUVs and sports advertising. In a ballpark, you’ve got a captive audience that needs refreshment. Enjoying a brew became tied to enjoying a game.”

Though the American Association folded in 1892, a handful of clubs were allowed back into the National League, where they continued to peddle suds. New York brewer Jacob Ruppert later bought the Yankees, wedding Knickerbocker Beer to what would become baseball’s premier franchise. While Prohibition briefly left ballparks dry, it hardly drove brew out of baseball — Cincinnati Reds president and self-proclaimed “champion beer drinker” Garry Herrmann once had a barrel of suds sent to him during league meetings in New York.

“Herrmann wasn’t unusual,” Grace says. “Prohibition didn’t mean that fans didn’t come to the ballpark with their own flasks. It was a matter of just waiting it out.”

Beer and sports have been an item ever since. And in the here and now, their lucrative marriage goes far beyond brew sales and television ad buys, stadium naming rights and league-wide sponsorships. Think demographic penetration. Cross-promotion. Synergy. Fancy corporate buzzwords projected in Power Point.

Last year, Coors debuted the aforementioned beer/football/twins campaign, dubbed “Love Songs,” in an effort to woo 21-to-25-year-old men. The first ad was so successful that the beer company worked directly with the NFL to create a second, playoff-themed commercial.

Oh, and the cheerleading duo in question — the generously endowed Klimaszewski sisters — ended up singing the national anthem at a New England Patriots game. Hello, twinergy … er, synergy.

“We worked with the [NFL] on the commercial, took them through the story boards, made sure they were pleased with the message,” Coors spokeswoman Hillary Martin says. “It’s a strategic partnership. Our NASCAR sponsorship is another example. By sponsoring Sterling Martin’s No.40 car, we’re able to take and build excitement for the sport at retail locations around the country — even in states where fans might not be able to get out to a race.”

Likewise, beer companies use sports the way conservative Republican presidential candidates use stops at Bob Jones University: To connect with their core constituents. In the early 1970s, a Chicago brewery introduced Meister Brau Light, a low calorie beer aimed at women. The new brew flopped harder than Robert Horry checking Kevin Garnett.

“Women didn’t drink much beer,” says Rick Burton, director of the University of Oregon’s sports marketing center. “And no man in the early 1970s was going to touch a woman’s beer.”

Looking to market a similar beer for Miller — a low-cal brew that men could drink more of, then the industry’s Holy Grail — advertisers at McCann-Erickson came up with a novel idea: Employ sports to make light beer seem macho. The first Miller Lite ads, featuring football stars Matt Snell and Ernie Stautner, aired in 1973; three years later, McCann added the now-famous slogan “Tastes Great-Less Filling,” a mantra that became a Wave-like fan favorite at arenas across the nation.

“You don’t design ad campaigns believing that stadiums are going to chant your slogan,” says Burton, who managed the Great/Filling campaign in the 1980s. “At that point, it was probably America’s favorite advertising campaign.”

Over the next decade, Miller added dozens of sports figures to its roster of “Lite All-Stars,” including John Madden, Dick Butkus, Deacon Jones and Mickey Mantle. The result? Miller sales rose from 7 million barrels to 31 million barrels in a five-year span, and low-cal beer became a watery fixture in the marketplace.

“You would never see Tiffany support motocross or Home Depot support the Kentucky Derby,” says Matthew Youngblood, a San Francisco-based branding consultant active in the beer industry. “Do-it-yourself stores and horse racing just don’t share anything in the universe. Beer and sports are on the opposite side of the spectrum. They share a lot.”

Raising the bar

Sharing — in the form of a second pitcher — is the order of the day when it comes to beer and sports’ most ubiquitous love child: The sports bar. Like a Swedish-Brazilian supermodel or an Eminem cover of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” sports bars offer the best of both worlds. The thrill of the crowd. The comfort of central air. Plus Golden Tee.

At the downtown ESPN Zone — and notice that the Worldwide Leader in Sports has expanded into the bar business, as opposed to, say, tire dealerships — there are even mini-TVs above the bathroom urinals. Which means you catch the game while the beer goes down … and continue to watch as the beer comes out.

“I went to a place with my husband the other night, and he shouted out over the noise, ‘I can see 15 screens without moving my head,’” Bradford says with a laugh. “The modern sports bar is an amazing phenomenon, a complete saturation of sports images fueled by beer.”

In the halcyon days of baseball yore, slugger-cum-chugger Babe Ruth was said to favor a tavern located across the street from Chicago’s old Comiskey Park. His preferred time to visit? During games. Flash forward 70 years, and Ruth wouldn’t need to take off his cleats. At the First Union Center in Philadelphia, an in-arena pub brews Red Bell beer on site. Six flavors, in fact, in vats that are visible from the arena concourse. For Sixers and Flyers games, the pub opens early, closes late and often plays host to Flyers alumni — in essence, transforming the 20,444-seat building into the biggest sports bar on the East Coast. If not the planet.

“People tend to want to go to a bar before a game and after a game,” says Ike Richman, a spokesman for the arena. “But why go to a bar when you can come here?”

And that, in a way, brings us back to our initial riddle. Not to mention Zen. In an era when stadiums are bars, devout Muslim Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pitches suds and Anaheim Angels owner Arturo Moreno is hailed as a latter-day Saint Vincent de Paul for slashing the price of stadium brew from $8.50 to $6.75, perhaps the question at hand isn’t why beer and sports go together — but rather, why wouldn’t they go together?

“For a lot of people, there’s a perfect marriage between sports and beer,” Syracuse’s Thompson says. “Neither one would be the same without the other.”

Or, as Bud Bowl No. 1 draft pick Bud Dry once put it: Why ask why?

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