Teams, Beverage Brands Lean on Virtual Happy Hours

    • Already focused on developing an at-home strategy, the Orlando Magic use the pandemic to test out programming.
    • Milwaukee Brewers find a natural fit with Molson Coors for continuing virtual events.

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Even before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world and forced teams to find new ways to stay top of mind, the Orlando Magic staff was thinking about how to create a more immersive at-home experience for fans.

The NBA hiatus has forced the team’s hand and led to a Budweiser partnership integration with a virtual happy hour, which will allow fans to save $5 on Anheuser-Busch deliveries through Drizly. The promo supports an Instagram TV happy hour with former Magic forward Rashard Lewis as Fox Sports Florida replays a game from the 2009 NBA Finals.

“We’ve been talking to A-B right out of the gate, and they’ve been one of the most proactive brands in talking about how to continue to engage fans and consumers,” J.T. McWalters, Magic vice president of partnership activation and corporate partnerships, said. “This was reacting to the pandemic, but we’ve been thinking about what this experience sports at home culture looks like … we thought this would be a nice test for us.”

McWalters said there’s plenty to take from these strange circumstances as consumer habits change and said there’s a developing experience-at-home strategy developing. 

The Magic aren’t alone as numerous beverage brands are putting resources behind virtual events in a natural extension to keep fans engaged with both their favorite teams and their brands.

As the Milwaukee Brewers were holding calls between President of Baseball Operations David Stearns and ticket holders, a recognition there was an opportunity not just for engagement, but entertainment emerged, Tyler Barnes, Brewers senior vice president of communications and affiliate operations, said. The Brewers have hosted two virtual happy hours, sponsored by Miller Lite, which have featured guests like Brewers Hall-of-Fame third baseman Robin Yount and musical talent like Rhett Miller. 

“We don’t want to get too far away from baseball, but a lot of musicians and actors are baseball fans. Let’s get involved,” Barnes said. “I didn’t realize we had booked a comedian until Robin started taking us on a tour of his home.” 

There have been a few other fan and customer calls with other partners for the Brewers, Barnes said, but the mass appeal to the virtual happy hour concept was a natural fit for the team’s partnership with Molson Coors.

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The happy hour trend isn’t just reserved for the major beer brands either, as Yuengling Brewing and Boulevard Brewing have both pulled in MLB players for virtual events. Kansas City-based Boulevard used its partnerships with the Kansas City Royals and players to host a “Virtual Royals Rally” with second baseman Whit Merrifield, third baseman Hunter Dozier and broadcaster Joel Goldberg on May 7. 

The Vegas Golden Knights have had its broadcasters and team president on happy hours hosted by Foley Family Wines – team owner Bill Foley’s wine company.

Pennsylvania’s Yuengling launched a partnership earlier this year with Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola and now has pushed forward a virtual fundraiser called Cheers PA to raise money for the state’s out-of-work hospitality workers. The donations through Pledge It and Cameo can win fans a variety of Nola memorabilia and experiences, as well as others within the Pennsylvania sports community.

“When we met with Aaron, he embodies the spirit of having a great work ethic, and we found synergies and hit it off,” Jen Yuengling, a sixth-generation family member of Yuengling Brewing, said. “Working with such an iconic figure in the Pennsylvania baseball world, it’s a way to reach fans and consumers authentically.”

The brand also hosted a virtual Instagram happy hour with U.S. Women’s National Team player Rose Lavelle, who is now a brand ambassador for Yuengling’s new light beer, Flight. Yuengling – the oldest and one of the largest breweries in the U.S. – also has sponsorship deals with the New Jersey Devils, University of South Florida, University of Central Florida, and Western Kentucky University.

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While the Magic are currently focused on being part of the healing process and providing a distraction during the pandemic, McWalters said the happy hour was a great example of providing partners with value by being a conduit to other business opportunities. 

“We stand pretty bullish that it’s an opportunity to engage fans,” he said. “Sports content is continuing to evolve; if we’re not figuring out how to meet fans at home, we might fall behind. This situation forces us to innovate.”

Like the Magic, the Brewers have found a new way to extend partnerships and fan engagement beyond the season and game day experience. 

“If there’s a silver lining to what we’re going through, it’s that we have had a blank canvas that not only allows us but forces us to be more creative,” Barnes said. “We’re working in all sorts of different media now. I think the happy hours are a natural fit to continue well beyond this year.”