Are the Blue Jays breaking the law by not offering better beer selection?


The Toronto Blue Jays are the only team in Major League baseball that doesn’t offer local beer at their baseball games.

Obviously, this sucks.

People who like baseball often also like beer. People who like to go support their local baseball team might conceivably also like to support their local breweries.

The Toronto Blue Jays organization apparently doesn’t give a shit about these people. Instead, they are happy to award exclusivity to the foreign-owned entity that was willing to cough up the biggest chunk of dough for the right to be the only beer sold at the Rogers Centre (if you’re still not sure who exactly I’m talking about, look no further than that glaring Budweiser logo that adorns most of the Toronto Blue Jays’ left field).

There was of course a glimmer of hope recently in March of 2013 when I broke the news that Steamwhistle–the folks making baseball-ready pilsner literally across the street from the Jays–would finally be allowed to sell their beer at the Rogers Centre.

Of course, being able to drink Toronto beer at a Toronto baseball game was short lived and almost exactly one year later, conceivably because the folks at AB InBev had had enough “competition,” I was breaking the news that the Good Beer Folks had been unceremoniously given the boot.

There’s been some rumbling in the interim–notably a petition created by Phil Cacace, the owner of the great Toronto bar, Tall Boys, some scant media coverage, and at least one perennially-irascible Toronto beer writer who has made a point of raising the issue on twitter every once and a while but, for the most part, we’re all pretty much resigned to accepting watery lager to drink while we take in live games of Toronto’s generally watered-down version of professional baseball.

And while it’s profoundly shitty that the Jays can’t even be arsed to provide us with decent local beer to sip while we watch their team prolong the longest current post-season drought in the Majors, is it actually possible that it’s not just dickish, but also…illegal?

Stephen Brooks, the Toronto Blue Jays’ senior vice-president of business operations was quoted in a Toronto Star article yesterday in which he was justifying raising ticket prices to see a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in 21 years.

“Brooks says he has heard the criticism [about local beer] and is aware of it, but the Jays have an “important” exclusivity deal with Budweiser that precludes other beer vendors from selling inside the stadium. “We have over 25 different beer offerings (all owned by Budweiser) and we’re looking to add a couple other beers that I think will be interesting to fans.” Brooks said he couldn’t speak to how other clubs manage their contracts with beer vendors.

This isn’t really “news” given that, obviously, the company who’s name adorns a large section of the stands who is dumping buttloads of dirty, dirty money into the Rogers Centre would expect to enjoy some benefits as a result, but the fact of the matter is, Ontario’s liquor laws explicitly forbid exclusivity.

It’s point I touched on in an article I wrote for Torontoist back in the day (‘scuse me while I flog this dead horse a little more) on the shenanigans surrounding tap line purchasing. You can’t, by law, provide incentives, cash or otherwise, in exchange for exclusivity in a licensed establishment. As The Liquor License Act states:

A manufacturer of liquor or an agent or employee of a manufacturer shall not directly or indirectly offer or give a financial or material inducement to a person who holds a licence or permit under the Act or to an agent or employee of the person for the purpose of increasing the sale or distribution of a brand of liquor.

Furthermore, it seems like any establishment that does so is at risk of losing their license to sell alcohol. Specifically, Section (4)(b) of the Act says:

A licence to sell liquor shall not be issued to a person who by reason of an agreement, arrangement or understanding with any person is likely to promote the sale of liquor or to sell the liquor of a manufacturer exclusive of any other manufacturer.

So are the Jays breaking the law?

It’s a tough call. Often, sports facilities that have exclusivity to one brand will get around the law by having one other brand on hand. Another perpetually-losing Toronto sports franchise whose facilities I once toured proudly boasted to me of their loyalty to one brewer and when I asked about the law, I was informed there was literally one six pack (one six pack!) of a competitor’s brand somewhere on the premises. I was also told “Good luck finding it!”

So the Jays are likely also skirting this rule by hiding something other than AB-InBev products somewhere onsite, but it still seems like they’re operating in, at best, a morally ambiguous area and perhaps even a legally grey-ish zone.

Whenever I’ve spoken to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) about such issues, they’ve said they’re not in the business of interpreting legislation for me (despite the fact that the quotes I’ve pulled seem pretty straightforward) and that there are actually no set fines or penalties for infractions, rather infractions are examined on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, they typically only investigate infractions about which they receive complaints. They don’t have an active “AGCO Patrol” walking the beat, checking out tap lines and looking for diversity in beer selection. Presumably, there’d have to be a lot of complaints registered to the AGCO about the apparent unfair lack of selection at the Rogers Centre before the AGCO checked it out and/or anything actually changed.

Incidentally, complaints about liquor infractions can be forwarded in writing to AGCO Customer Service at:

Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario
90 Sheppard Avenue East
Suite 200
Toronto, Ontario M2N 0A4

or by email to:

More information on the complaints process is available here.

Photo credit Ian Hunter.

17 thoughts on “Are the Blue Jays breaking the law by not offering better beer selection?

  1. I am the DD for our Blue Jays games we go to from the Peterborough area. Why you say? Their selection of beer makes me sick. Compared to the US, we are 100 years behind the times, of course. I reuse to pay what, $11.00 for a can of this crap? No thanks, I’ll be the DD for the day.

  2. As a former supporter of SteamWhistle, I felt compelled to clarify and comment on your article. I found this hard to believe at first, that Steam Whistle was not only close in proximity to the Rogers Centre, but not offered for sale. My wife’s nephew is Stephen Brooks, Sr.V.P. who clarified why exactly Steam Whistle’s contract wasn’t renewed, which I will not disclose.
    After being informed by Stephen Brooks, I placed a call to Steam Whistle and commented, the next time this story is told, tell both sides, not just theirs. I personally felt deceived by Steam Whistle, and would back up Stephen Brooks decision 100% knowing ALL the facts.

    1. You’re saying we too should back up your wife’s nephew 100% based on the information he provided you that you’re not willing to share?

      Sounds good to me, Scott. Budweisers all around!

      But seriously, let’s pretend the ominous way you’re referring to Steamwhistle implies they somehow share some of the blame for being ousted. There are plenty of other breweries in town. No reason the Rogers Centre can’t have any number of Ontario beers available.

      1. Ben, first off, I went to Stephen with the facts as provided by Steam Whistle, our words became heated, and I have not spoken with Stephen since this incident, including CHRISTMAS, thanksgiving, birthday get togethers etc. Steam Whistle neglected to inform me of ALL the facts. To be absolutely clear, I have no horse in this race, but this was 100% the fault of Steam Whistle, as they had a prior warning regarding this, but failed to abide.

        As per your comment regarding other breweries, you would need to consult Stephen Brooks as I do not represent the organization.

    2. Oh please. The quote above from Brooks states there is an exclusive relationship between I Still Call It The Skydome and ABInbev. Neither the Skydome or Steam Whistle has pointed to any reason other than the newly penned exclusive relationship for the end of Steam Whistle’s presence at the ball park. But YOU know the ‘real’ reason and you aren’t spilling the beans. That makes you an attention whore with nothing of value to add. Thanks for coming out.

      But let’s say Steam Whistle was naughty and did something to make somebody cry (If both parties were making money selling Steam Whistle I can’t imagine they couldn’t get through whatever issues they had. So it must have been BAD!) the exclusive nature of the agreement implies the Skydome has no interest in selling local beer regardless of what SW did.

      ABInbev made the Skydome an offer they chose not to refuse. My guess is that it was because of the giant sacks of cash brought to the negotiating table and the poor behaviour of another supplier.

    3. You mean when they advertised on twitter that Steam Whistle was available at the SkyDome, which was against some lame-ass “rule” the Jays had in place? That was 100% a bully tactic by AnBev to cry to Rogers to get them kicked out. So, no, not at all 100% Steam Whistle’s fault.

  3. Its is the only stadium in North America along with the ACC (not a coincidence) that does not have at LEAST 3 local craft options. COORS FIELD has > 10. Coors field. Let that sink in. A big brewer pays off a venue – which happens every day in Ontario – and the regulators do nothing because their MP overlords are also paid off via political contributions. Several laws broken, no problem. There is no other side to this story.

  4. I wholeheartedly support the “we need craft beer” at the Rogers Centre perspective.

    As a baseball lover who has enjoyed locally crafted beers at Coors Field and Comerica Park this past year, I am saddened, and often leave thirsty, when I go to Jays games.

    But, there are a few things everyone seems ot overlook. Yes, Rogers Centre is dominated by AB InBev products. But they do serve wine in some areas, they have Bacardi Rum products at one of their bars, they do serve (not much better) Sapporro and Sleeman products at a few of the vendor locations. And…SHOCKER…you can get Nickel Brook Gluten Free beer at Rogers Centre. What? An acutual craft beer? Crazy. Ok, that is stretching it I guess but NB’s Gluten Free beer has been there for years, albeit it at one location only. Obviously the special dietary crowd has more weight than the craft beer crowd when it comes to getting what we want in the dome.

    My sadness is that up until a couple of years ago, Hoegaarden was available on tap. While that is part of the AB InBev line…it really is a solid beer and perfect for summer. I have no idea why such a great brand was exiled from the Rogers Centre, but I suspect it was to make room for Shock Top, which is terrible.

    As bad as it is, the fact that they offer wine, Bacardi, Sleeman, NB Gluten-Free…well, quite clearly they are not breaking the law.

  5. Interesting point Ben, but I have to agree with Jack on this one: the fact that there are other beers on sale outside of AB-INBev’s products makes this story fall flat. Also, I realize you’ll never get evidence of money changing hands in return for tap lines, but is it irresponsible to throw out accusations like the company is “dumping buttloads of dirty, dirty money into the Rogers Centre,” when you have absolutely no proof? After all, we both know that craft brewers are forced to play the same game, and that many of them offer “marketing incentives” in the form of patio furniture etc., heavy discounts and cash for tap lines. Seems a bit one-sided.

    1. It doesn’t matter who’s providing the “marketing incentives.” It’s illegal. I’m not being one sided.
      Shady draught purchasing practices ultimately hurt the industry. I have no love for the craft folks that do it either (I.e. most of them). It’s illegal and shitty and makes the game tough for small brewers to play. As for the buttloads of money, is the humongous Budweiser sign in the outfield and the Jays VP making mention of their deal with AB InBev in a major newspaper not enough proof enough for you?
      I’m also aware that there are tiny concessions made (Sleeman, et. al) that make this arrangement technically legal, but let’s talk about why we don’t get better choices when we’re sitting in the stands. The Jays are siding with big corporate sponsors over what a large portion of their fans want and it’s bullshit.

      1. I don’t think it’s bullshit, I think it’s business. The Jays aren’t a fan club, they’re a major sports franchise. As for the deal and proof, I’m not a big fan of assumptions. Bud’s marketing deal could be separate from whatever taps deal they have with the franchise. Point is, you just don’t know and the allegation of buttloads of money implies that they’re being paid off.

        Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see some local craft beer and food on offer at the Dome, I feel ashamed to take my out-of-town friends to a game where they’re forced to eat Bud and Pizza Pizza. But I’ve been to some of the major stadiums in the U.S. and the local food and beer vendors on tap are the ones who can afford to pay: bigger indie chains and brewers, and I think for some craft beer defends, even having Steam Whistle or Mill Street on tap wouldn’t be indie enough to satisfy.

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