Over multiple nights of whiskeys, J. Rieger & Co. Owner Andy Rieger and Sporting Kansas City President and CEO Jake Reid solved at least one of the world’s problems.
The Kansas City distillery and the MLS team agreed to enter into a partnership not driven by money, but rather shared growth objectives and a love for their city. The keystone of the deal is Sporting Kansas City Whiskey – an “easy layup” when the distillery’s whiskey is already called KC Whiskey.
“It truly started in our barrel warehouse, tasting some samples just talking,” Rieger said. “They were in the middle of a sponsorship and we have long-term vision, so I said, ‘As long as you’re getting good money, don’t mess with us. We don’t fit into a box, we want to be a change of direction.”
The three-year deal doesn’t have a traditional sponsorship fee. Instead, both brands expect to drive value through mutually-beneficial collaborations, knowledge exchange and revenue shares, like co-branded whiskey and expanded concession programs.
A big piece of the deal is Sporting Kansas City has a local ownership group with “hypersensitivity” when it comes to plugging in with local brands, Reid said. The new spirits partnership kicked off with a season-opening party with more than 1,000 fans.
“Are partnerships defined by writing a check or doing cool things that bring fans together?” Reid asked. “That was the guiding light of how we got here.”
Rieger is nothing short of blunt when it comes to the traditional sports sponsorship model.
“With sports teams it’s, ‘Here’s my box, my price, do you want a logo or not,’” Rieger said. “It’s the old way of thinking and there’s nothing wrong with it.
“Overall, it seems like sports teams look at themselves as the big brother, as opposed to let’s do something cool together. ”
The partnership stems from an alignment of local strategies, Dae Hee Kwak, University of Michigan associate professor of sport management, said.
“They share the same core values of being a Kansas City brand, share the same target audience, and most importantly, the exclusive merchandise will help fuel fan experience throughout numbers of hospitality events on game days and non-game days,” Kwak said. “It is an ideal case where both Sporting KC and the distillery’s business objectives, brand identity, and target audiences are well-aligned. Not all sponsorships have that.”
Sporting Kansas City’s Reid knows the distillery is still hoping to move bottles of product to Sporting supporters, but he’s excited about the extra capabilities the distillery is lending to the team.
Of those is help on a greatly renovated concessions program for the team’s home field at Children’s Mercy Park.
Sporting Kansas City overhauled its concession stands and menus in the “biggest change” to the stadium since it opened in 2011. J. Rieger & Co. contributed the spirits and cocktail recipes, as well as guided the team’s hospitality employees on best practices for bartenders and servers.
The team also updated the venue’s technology, including the wireless internet throughout the building.
“Despite what our fans think, we listen to feedback and wanted to address their need for creativity and new offerings,” Reid said. “We tried to turn it on its head a bit. Each stand is unique and has a lot of local partnerships.”
As with the sponsorships, Rieger said sports venue concessions, in general, need some rethinking.
“A lot of teams see there’s a monopoly and fans have to buy whatever and eat,” he said. “But what if you have an awesome bar experience, would people decide rather than tailgate they come buy a few more drinks.”
Reid will look at several metrics to determine if the J. Rieger & Co. deal works in the long run, but said it’s already “a huge success in a short amount of time,” as the co-branded whiskey is hard to find in the local market – there were only 4,000 bottles made to start.
“This is an example of ‘let’s go to market together’ and make it a stronger offering than each doing it individually,” Reid said, conceding the distillery is still looking for an uptick in bottle sales.
Despite the Sporting Kansas City sponsorship, J. Rieger & Co. isn’t considering a large portfolio of teams. For Rieger, it’s more about supporting a local team and helping foster a community between fans of the two Kansas City brands.
“Ever since we announced the partnerships, sports teams are calling me assuming we’re cutting big checks,” Rieger said. “I’m saying no every time, I don’t want that type of relationship.”