This Bud Is Not For You
Anheuser-Busch InBev's $75-million World Cup scorpion sting.
We’re on break for the rest of the week! In the meantime, we’re bringing you a selection of good posts from some friends of the blog.
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Lie with dogs, wake up with fleas. Reap what you sow. Chat shit, get banged. There are any number of aphorisms to illustrate old Al Einstein’s definition of insanity. But your fearless Fingers editor is personally fond of the fable of the frog and the scorpion. Do you know it? A frog and a scorpion want to cross a river. The scorpion promises not to sting the frog, so the frog paddles them both out into the river. The scorpion stings the frog. Promises, schmomises: what did the frog really expect to happen here?
Anyway! Just before the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off in Qatar, the repressive and corrupt royal family that rules the Gulf nation decided to bring down the ban-hammer on beer sales at eight opulent soccer stadiums built with the blood of thousands of migrant workers and/or slaves. It’s just the latest bit of manipulation in an all-out sportswashing campaign that the country kicked off over a decade ago with “bag men,” bribery, and gazillions of petrodollars. In other words, even though no soccer has been played yet, the game is very much afoot, and has been for awhile.
Speaking of dollars: Anheuser-Busch InBev paid a reported $75 million to secure Budweiser’s sponsorship of the event, and was apparently blindsided by the move. After agreeing to revise its beer tent placements to assuage Qatari officials’ last-minute concerns about the unrest they could cause in the conservative Muslim country (where alcohol is legal but tightly regulated), the King of Beers learned late Thursday evening it’d been fully expelled from the Qataris’ soccer castles. “[A] decision has been made to… remove sales points of beer from Qatar’s FIFA World Cup 2022 stadium perimeters,” the (also notoriously corrupt) federation said in a brief statement early Friday morning.
Translation: “The scorpion has stung the frog. Who could’ve seen this coming?!”
Anybody, of course: Qatar secured the rights to this year’s World Cup in 2010, and it has spent a dozen years equivocating on the matter before finally agreeing in September to honor the terms of its deal with FIFA, which included alcohol sales. The agreement didn’t last very long! ABI took the news pretty well at first: “Well this is awkward…” Budweiser’s verified (and Muskedly official) Twitter account posted early Friday morning. Someone at HQ deleted the tweet about 90 minutes later, presumably once enough executives had progressed from “denial” to “anger” in the stages of corporate grief.
“As partners of FIFA for over three decades, we look forward to our activations of FIFA World Cup campaigns around the world to celebrate football with our consumers,” the megacorp said in a Friday mid-morning statement. ABI looks so forward to the World Cup, in fact, that it flew 100 influencers to Qatar from all over the world for the festivities. Also, because it has no breweries on the Arabian Peninsula, it shipped an ocean-freighters’ worth of Budweiser to Qatar and stored it in refrigerated warehouses in advance of the tournament, according to Bloomberg. Now, it’ll only be permitted to sell Budweiser Zero, its also-ran non-alcoholic proxy, in the stadium compounds; a lot of that Bud Heavy will likely go undrunk, doomed to waste away in the Qatari heat. You hate to see it! Well, ABI does, at least: “Some of the planned stadium activations cannot move forward due to circumstances beyond our control.”
Translation: “Wait, we’re the frog?! This sucks ass!”
Naturally, there will be lawsuits. “Big about face means FIFA now faces contractual nightmare with Budweiser,” tweeted New York Times reporter and co-author of Football’s Secret Trade Tariq Panja, who is on the ground in Doha, Qatar’s capital. One imagines a call has been placed to a Big Red bunker deep below Grant’s Farm, where a dozens of ABI contract attorneys, wild-eyed on out-of-code Tilt, are now frenetically sharpening knives and booking flights to The Hague. (They’ll fly coach, of course, in keeping with the Tao of Brito.) FIFA is a likely target; the Qatari royal family is another. This will all be heavily complicated by the fact that Qatar’s stated reason for this latest move is that prominent booze ads/consumption could enflame rank-and-file Qataris, the vast majority of which, according to the WHO, do not drink. This seems somewhat valid, but it’s also not a new condition; the country has been Muslim this whole time! Anyway, should be nuts to watch it unfold, and I will.
In the meantime, as neither scorpion nor frog in this devil’s bargain, it’s hard to feel bad for anybody involved. Everybody, including ABI, knew for years that Qatar was corrupt, with a human-rights record written in blood. Reporters and NGOs have been sounding the alarm about it since way before the country bought its way into this year’s hosting duties 12 years ago! None of that was enough for FIFA or ABI stop doing business with Qatar, of course. Their oil is black and their money is green, so play ball. For the country to drag its feet on a key piece of that business (the piece that makes this particularly relevant to us, no less) until the 11th hour, then equivocate at 11:30, then blow it all up at 11:59, is a tall glass of schadenfreude, brewed to perfection.
Setting aside the vagaries of commercial geopolitics, this reversal is still awash in booze-biz irony.1 Less than a month ago, I argued at VinePair that macrobrewers were using 0.0 beers as a marketing gambit to get around increasingly aggressive restrictions over alcohol advertising at international sporting events like Formula 12. In an exception that just may prove the rule, Qatar is forcing ABI in the other direction: rather than prominently featuring Budweiser tents and ephemera around the stadiums, the firm is relegated to selling Bud Zero on-site as a consolation prize. Will it halo Bud Heavy overseas? Who knows!
This all of course sucks shit for fans who were looking forward to drinking a beer or nine in the World Cup stands. I get that, believe me, I do. I go to baseball games just to wham Budweiser 25-ouncers and ignore the score until the final few frames, so I do feel some pain for the folks who bought tickets for beaucoup bucks only to learn that the already constrained Qatari version of that small pleasure has been snatched away from them at the last minute.3 But here’s a question: have those people considered working for FIFA, or just simply not being poor? Because—and this is the real knee-slapper—rich people can still get alcohol in the stadiums! From the NYT’s Panja, emphasis mine:
Beer and other drinks, including an official FIFA Champagne and an array of sommelier-selected wines, will still be available in stadium luxury suites reserved for FIFA officials and other wealthy guests.
Just to recap, the proles in steerage are being deprived their ration of beechwood-aged adjunct lager on wobbly pretense while the glittering global elite guzzle soccer-themed bubbly and blaspheme above. Boxes start at around $22,000. Who called it a sports tournament that showcases the obscenities of global inequality through access to drink and not The Thirst Games? It’s like a Taittinger cameo in Snowpiercer, except real, and nobody is pairing it with bug protein. Yet.
All of this is really funny, and you’re allowed to laugh. Please do! But don’t lose sight of the subtext here, because it’s incredibly dark. The reversal “raises the possibility that other promises that run counter to local laws and customs — including issues like press freedom, street protests and the rights of LGBTQ+ visitors — [are] not as rock-solid as Qatar and FIFA have said,” explains Panja. Not good, man, not good at all, particularly since Qatari police are already allegedly “hunting” and gang-raping gay men. (Homosexuality is illegal in the country, and is in some cases punishable by the death penalty.)
What happens to all that erstwhile Bud Heavy in Qatari warehouses? How does all that wasted shipping and refrigeration energy factor into ABI’s stated sustainability goals? Bud Light Next doesn’t have zero alcohol, but it does have zero carbs—does that count for anything here? Questions abound and minds boggle, dear readers. I know one thing for sure: you can still drink a meta-beer in the Budverse, as long as you’ve minted the brand’s latest World Cup NFT. It costs $100, which is 1/750,000th of what it cost ABI to secure the rights to produce it, for those of you keeping score at home.
So, what have we learned? Well, for one thing, don’t count your beers before they’re cracked. For another, promises are one thing, but a scorpion’s sting is quite another. The frog isn’t safe; apparently the Clydesdale isn’t, either.
ABI has just now begun to loosen its once-viselike grip on the World Cup’s American analog,
Bachelor in Paradise the Super Bowl after decades of exclusivity. For the firm get bamboozled on what is probably its other biggest sports sponsorship in the same damn year is just… man. Put it this way: I’d drink a thousand Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheats just to hear five minutes of August Busch III’s unedited thoughts on the latter-day trajectory of the company that still bears his name.
I.e.: Heineken pitches its blue-labeled N/A product all over F-1, but the priority product and revenue comes in the full-strength green bottle. I spoke about this with James Wilt, author of Drinking Up the Revolution, check out the transcript of our interview here.
On the other hand, it strains credulity to imagine anybody didn’t know about Qatar’s whole deal beforehand, so… buyer beware, I guess!