After my last two visits to CenturyLink Field, the home stadium of the Seattle Seahawks, a ghost from my past has begun to hang out and haunt me all over again. In 2008, I wrote a post here called “Qwest Field, Levy Restaurants & BEER: There’s a Scandal Brewing in YOUR Public Facilities“, that was prompted by the rather innocent task of, during the inaugural season of the new stadium, in 2002, just leaving my seat to try to find a cup of locally-produced beer. That initial foray – which took twenty-five minutes and about a two mile trudge around three levels of the entire stadium – left me shocked and frustrated to such a degree that I’ve never really gotten over it…and, Lord Knows, I’ve had zero help from the Seahawks.
If you’re reading this outside of Seattle or the Pacific Northwest, this is a cautionary tale; the sad saga of what happens behind the tattering facade of the National Football League when no one is looking. It could just as easily happen – and, honestly, probably already HAS happened – in Jacksonville, Tampa, Dallas, Green Bay, Denver, or any other home city to an NFL franchise. The long and very nimble tentacles of a company accustomed to having their way with Everything Beer for over 100 years in the US marketplace – the formerly American-owned, now Belgian/Brazilian-owned Anheuser Busch (now known as AB/InBev) – are probably attached to your home team’s beer taps right now. This is a company which has displayed an ongoing entitlement to be Top Dog in the world’s beer business and has never found any shady business practice beneath them. From “tied houses” to buy-outs and factory closures to Good Ol’ Boy deals that lock out shelf placements for other beers in supermarkets to simply burying competitors in a tsunami of advertising and promotional dollars, AB has always gotten their way…until this messy craft beer thing exploded into being, the one competitor that they couldn’t buy out or ridicule to death. Make no mistake about it: they’re still at it and their eventual goal is nothing less than the death (or the severe crippling) of craft beer.
I’m going to lift parts of that original post to because A) I’m lazy and B) nothing has really changed since that one, hot-blooded, moment-of-anger post. The lifts will be shown in a different color, so that you can see just how lazy I am.
A little background: nobody involved with the Seahawks or their management company, First & Goal, will admit to this but it’s become fairly obvious, over the years and the myriad obfuscations, that the NFL and AB/InBev, the Belgian/Brazilian mega-corporation that has owned Anheuser Busch for the past six years, have some cozy, backroom arrangement that guarantees the Bud Trolls the majority of all its stadiums’ available beer taps. I’ve asked this question directly to members of Levy Restaurants, the Seahawks’ former concessionaire, to First & Goal (who got rude and prickly about it), and the Seahawks, who professed ignorance of the inner workings of their stadium. “Is there a proprietary deal with AB/InBev?” Simple enough question..no response. NONE.
Among the answers I have gotten are:
He replied that both Levy and First & Goal, Paul Allen’s management company for Qwest Field, decided that – quoting now – “the Seahawks patrons are not a microbrew crowd. They want Budwesier. We’ve added some microbrews for the Sounders because they’re microbrew people.”
In his last phone call, (Former Levy Director) Steve Johnson touted the “revised beer roster” at Qwest as being “one of the most liberal in the whole NFL”. Which beers are these, I asked.
“Well,” he replied, “We have Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Stella Artois, Heneken, Blue Moon, Fat Tire, Widmer “Drop Top”,and Guinness! We expanded our beer list like crazy…all because you brought it to our attention!”
“Let’s see,” I said, smouldering, “That list is California, Belgium, The Netherlands, Colorado, Colorado, Oregon Budweiser product, and Great Britain. And what was I arguing for again?”
“More beers!” he snapped.
“NO!” I groaned, “WASHINGTON beers. Locally-produced beers. Seattle beers! Good Lord, you keep telling me that nobody wants these beers and yet, by halftime of every game, the Big Al’s and Issaquah kegs are blown! Are you pouring it out onto the ground?”
Setting aside for a moment how much any intelligent person just loves being told what they prefer by someone else, there is the small matter of all those breweries that currently operate with a twenty-five mile radius of the stadium. All are in need of more business, of course, but who isn’t? About forty-five of them are actually profitable; some making enough jack to justify their own tasting room or even a restaurant. SOMEBODY is drinking all this beer. The world’s largest keg-only brewery IS, in fact, Mac & Jack’s Brewing in Redmond. M&J are currently, even in the recession, pumping out between 180 and 200 barrels of beer every day! Over 85,000 gallons of beer every month. They are not selling all this to beauty salons for beer rinses. In Seattle, in fact, in most pubs and taverns, Mac & Jack’s “African Amber” DOES outsell Bud, Miller, and Coors.
So, what’s the truth? Well, according to an industry insider, AB/InBev pays millions of dollars for the exclusive marketing – and the accompanying “Official Beer of the NFL” baloney – at ALL NFL stadiums and the way they get around all those inconvenient local and state laws (not to mention federal anti-trust laws) about such blatant payola and overt restraint of trade is to claim “right of sponsorship”. That is why their signage appears on the side of the stadium (and everywhere else there’s six square feet of space to paste up a poster), and why, in a very real sense, they essentially get to say whose beer is being sold in that stadium. I’ve gotten emails in the past, while writing on this topic, from people who saw absolutely nothing wrong with that sort of arrangement. “If they’re willing to pay the freight,” their reasoning g0es, “They should get to be exclusive.” Except for one tiny, niggling fact: That’s not how American free commerce works. Big companies that corner the market in any business segment of our economy can – and sometimes are – broken up by the feds as a means of preventing (and here’s our Key Phrase) “an unfair competitive advantage“. The old Bell Telephone System (Now AT&T) is a perfect example. According to Pearson Education, “According to the Department of Justice, the vertical structure of the company provided an opportunity for unfair competition against other providers of long-distance service. For example, by charging high local rates or by providing poor local service to other providers of long-distance service.” In short, a beast of a company like AB/InBev can – and is currently laboring mightily do just this – simply choke off competition, which results in fewer choices and (a VAST understatement) poor service for consumers. Because craft beer is composed of thousands of tiny breweries and really has no central structure or unified voice, a fledgling brewery cannot conceivably hope to start operations with any remote possibility of a level playing field. AB/InBev, with $43.2 BILLION in revenues in 2013 (as opposed to $14 billion from all American craft breweries combined), can simply wallpaper North America with their images and bully retailers into doing…well, whatever AB thinks is good for AB. And remember that the $43.2B is just ONE company. Their only other serious “competitor” in the watery adjunct Pilsner arena, MillerCoors, generated only $1.3 billion in 2013. Translation: AB/InBev is fully capable of running rough-shod over the twitching corpses of the entire brewing industry…and their history guarantees us that they plan to do exactly that.
The real issue here is not, and never has been, what mix of beers is being sold at QWes…uh…CLink…uh, the damned football stadium. I’m not compelled to drink any beer at the game and, at $9.75 a pop for craft beer, I’m better off not buying it. The issue – which everyone with whom I spoke at Levy and First & Goal seemed totally impervious to – was and is that…that stadium – which was built for $430 million in 1998 – 2002 – which translates to $530 million in 2014 $$$ – was paid for by Paul Allen and…US, the people and voters of the state of Washington. We, in fact, paid MORE of the total cost – $300 million, to be precise – than Paul Allen did. We, as well as Mr. Allen, are the owners of that stadium. And yet, due to the farcical and totally unjustifiable economics of professional sports, our Washington Public Stadium Authority receives a paltry (adjusted for inflation from the original $850,000) $1.5 million, annually, for the use of the land and the team keeps ALL revenues from the Stadium and its parking garage, as well as 80% of the proceeds from the CenturyLink Field Events Center. It is – as are MOST stadium deals around the US – the sweetheart deal to end all sweetheart deals. Arguably, the Seahawks and First & Goal and, therefore, Paul Allen are deriving waaaaay more benefit from the economic impact of the stadium than their “public partner” is. The city does benefit in terms of tourism dollars and increased cash flow via the stadium’s dealing with local purveyors…and therein lies the rub…
This grease-up-and-bend-over deal with AB siphons MOST of the cash spent at the stadium (what’s the most profitable item at most American sports stadia? Well, a hint: it ain’t Red Vines.) goes into the pockets of faceless stockholders abroad. It was bad enough when AB was owned by the Busch family. Then our bucks were going to the hometown of our divisional rival, the St. Louis Rams. But at least they were staying within the American economy. Now, that $10 you spend for a craft beer (adjusted for my own amusement…but not much) goes to fat cats in Belgium and Brazil and wherever some bean-countin’ investor calls home.
Is it really too much to ask that the management of a stadium that WE, the citizens of Washington, paid the lion’s share of the freight for should return that support in tangible terms? Three seasons ago, the stadium struck some sort of deal with Seattle’s Jones Soda to squeeze out all soft drinks except for theirs. Thousands of attendees passed on drinking sodas that season, me among ’em. People with whom I spoke about it said they felt Jones Sodas were being shoved down their throats – literally. I had occasionally bought Jones Sodas at previous games but stopped because of just that. Instead of featuring Jones, advocating for them, maybe selling them the title of “Official Soft Drink of The Seattle Seahawks”, First & Goal took away our choices in the matter: drink Jones or don’t drink pop. Poeple like Jones Soda but they like having choices more. We didn’t drink much pop that season.
And that – choices – was all I was asking for the stadium when I went down to Olympia, in 2009, to meet with Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, then-
chairperson of the Washington State Economic Development Commission. I presented the facts about the state’s financial participation in the stadium costs and suggested that the Commission propose a law requiring any publicly-funded facility in Washington – from stadiums to concert halls to any building or space which was built using public money – be required to offer at least 30% of all available purchases for that facility to in-state producers of the same or equivalent products. I didn’t feel that this was unreasonable and Ms. Kenney agreed but she wanted to have a group of brewery owners and brewers come to Olympia and testify before the committee as to the desirability of such a law. I talked with the executive director of the Washington Beer Commission…and nothing was ever done.
Here’s the bottom line: one of the primary objections that was raised by Levy and First & Goal was that most Washington breweries are so small that they simply couldn’t supply a facility the size of CenturyLink Field with enough beer to go around. No, I replied, you’re right about that. But ten or twenty or forty could supply more than enough to service the stadium if taps were rotated in and out as they’re emptied. In most cases, taps empty and the pourers have to say “We’re outta that one” a LOT during a game, anyway. Out comes the empty Big Al keg, in comes the new Seapine Brewing keg. Happens daily in bars all over the world. Is that really too complicated for the stadium concessionaires to figure out? And, given the sheer astronomical volumes of beer sold at CLink in a year, just that 30% share could keep most of these tiny, artisan breweries profitable for a good six months.
During the 2011 season, the stadium decided to improve their beer presence and instituted “craft beer shacks”, stocked with regionally produced (close enough) real craft beers…which were always sharing tap space with Anheuser Busch products. As I mentioned above, AB/InBev has been sneakily doing everything in its considerable power to attempt to either kill or incapacitate the craft beer industry. They’ve been wetting their undies for almost a decade now, since craft beer – which they dismissed for the previous decade as just “a passing fad” – has exploded and begun to put a serious dent in their brands. At Qwest/CenturyLink, a row of Big Al, Elysian, Silver City, and Dick’s were always sandwiched in with AB’s “Shock Top” (their lame Blue Moon knock-off) and usually neither Bud Light or one of their faux-crafts like American Ale. How in God’s Name Bud Light could ever be mistaken for a craft beer is beyond me but the folks at AB continue to try to sell the bizarre notion that what they make is actually “craft beer” and what all these all, small independent American breweries make is “amateur beer“. (I received an email from an AB engineer at their St. Louis Mothership which put it exactly that way.)
After 2011, apparently – as I was told by a manager of their new concessionaire, Delaware North Sportservice – the stadium’s new “craft booth and their new Bourgham “Beer Hall” are being run by…AB’s Seattle distributor, Columbia Distributing. Which leads to this current situation for beer at the CLink…
The sign for the “Craft Shack” does feature craft beers…but only the ones distributed by Columbia. Out of the 14 beers on the chalkboard, only nine are actually “craft beers” and only ONE is from Washington: Elysian Men’s Room Red. At the Brougham “Beer Hall” – wouldn’t you think something called a “beer hall” would have the most beers of any place in the stadium?” – the situation is FAR worse: FIVE of the ten available beers are not craft beers by any definition. The other five are and these, at least, ARE Washington beers…but only the very obvious ones and, again, beers that are distributed by Columbia and are, AGAIN, shoved into close enough proximity to AB’s crap Platinum and Bud Light to suggest that there’s really no difference at all between them. The stadium does still have “craft beer shacks” but these are tucked in at odd places around the stadium, like the outside concourse on the upper level, where patrons have to stand in the elements to find…craft beers crammed in with Bud products!
This stadium has been operating at a tidy profit for 12 years, now, generating huge dollars for Allen and the owners of the Sounders and for First & Goal from not only sporting events but concerts and trade shows and banquets and graduation ceremonies and college football and that’s not even counting television revenues and sales of team branded apparel and printables. Those who keep the profits from a stadium that we chipped in to make possible do, yes, provide jobs and revenues for local businesses through the massive influx of visitors for all the many functions there and no one, least of all me, is forgetting that. But the callous disregard – the actual dismissiveness with which the very idea of evening out the playing field by even that modest 30% has been greeted – has been baffling to me, especially when, right across the street at SafeCo Field, the Seattle Mariners are among the best in Major League Baseball at offering a broad and very interesting selection of regional Northwest craft beers to their lucky fans.
For a man whose oft-stated love for Seattle and the state of Washington has been shown in very tangible ways, Paul Allen’s failure to make sure that his companies are returning the support they’ve received from the citizens of Washington and the businesses they own is unfathomable. I can only suppose (and very much hope!) that the issue has simply been filtered out by his coterie of underlings and gofers who handle the trifles for him and never reached his ears, in the first place.
And I also have NO idea why the Washington Beer Commission would not have just given Ms. Kenney a call and asked the logical questions about a law which would be so much to their benefit. But what I do know is that, in terms of my own ability to ease back in my seat, put my feet up, and enjoy a craft beer at the Seahawks games…it’s just as much of a challenge now as it was in 2002.