The first rule of selling your beer at the Rogers Centre is
that you don’t talk about selling your beer at the Rogers Centre.
Historically, the fan experience at Blue Jays games has sucked.
If you look past your pre-pubescent / adolescent Joe Carter-soaked nostalgia for the Sky Dome, you know it’s true. The stadium is a Toronto monument to the last gasps of ugly, concrete, brutalist architecture and the marvel of — wow! — a moving roof has long since lost its lustre. It was always a little too dark and, when the dome was closed, a little too quiet.
It had all the charm of watching baseball in a shitty shopping mall.
Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. The stadium formerly known as the Sky Dome and the in-game experience there consistently rank among the worst in all of baseball. A 2022 “voice of fan report” analyzed 130,000 fan reviews to rank Major League Baseball stadiums based on Food and Drink, fan experience, family experience, and the facility and found that, overall, the Rogers Centre was the third worst and, in terms, of food and drink it was dead last.
In recent years, the Blue Jays head office has made overtures related to improving this abysmal fan experience, often hinting that they might actually do something about one of my main sticking points: The sad fact that the Jays were the only team in the majors without some decent local beer available from vendors.
The most recent and promising of these overtures came at the end of the 2019 season, when the Jays organization began quietly connecting with craft breweries in Toronto about selling their wares in the Rogers Centre. A handful of craft breweries let me know they were in talks with the Jays and it seemed like finally Canada’s only Major League team was about to start selling beer made by independent breweries located in the team’s geographic area.
They even went so far as to formalize a pitch for craft breweries, as outlined in a presentation deck that I obtained at the time. The terms of the agreement were a little eyebrow raising, to say the least.
Notably, in addition to the limited places craft beer might be sold, the deck specifies that all marketing of craft beer would be led by the Jays organization and it details the promotional things any craft brewery that was granted access to the Rogers Centre was NOT allowed to do.
Craft breweries will not have the ability to promote their association with Toronto Blue Jays or Rogers Centre including the following
- Access to team marks, logos, uniforms or player name
- Ability to mention Toronto Blue Jays or Rogers Centre
- Press releases
- Promotional use of game tickets
- Social media posts – no content or tagging
- Point of sale material or promotional activity at retail or on premise
- Promotion of generic baseball terms
In short, the pitch deck dictated that the terms of a “craft beer partnership” with the Jays really meant “You can sell here but you better not fucking talk about it.” Hell, they even forbade the use of “generic baseball terms” from its potential partners. Eat shit, Left Field Brewery.
Of course, if you’re at all familiar with Steam Whistle Brewery’s short tenure in the Rogers Centre, these strict rules lend credence to the rumours about why The Good Beer Folks were unceremoniously given the boot, namely that (allegedly) an angry Labatt executive learned about the presence of craft beer competition at the Rogers Centre by reading a retweet from the brewery touting their availability and he rage-vomited blood on a Rogers employee, threatening to pull those important AB InBev “partnership dollars,” causing Rogers to use the unauthorized “promotion” as a reason to pull the plug on Steam Whistle.
And so, back in 2019 and early 2020, I kept tabs on the Jays/Rogers chats with breweries, wondering if any brewery would enter into a partnership forbidding the cardinal sin of -gasp- letting people know where you can buy the fucking beer you’re trying to sell; when, of course, just as the 2020 MLB season was ramping up, all conversations about “in person experiences” suddenly became moot (if it’s not clear to you why, google “COVID.” Also, congrats on coming out of that coma. Don’t google Alex Trebek).
Yada yada yada lockdowns, political strife, millions dead, etc.
Fast forward to the lead-in to the 2022 season and the Jays are preparing to welcome fans back to ballgames. I hear from local breweries, once again, that the conversation about craft beer at the Rogers Centre is being revisited, this same pitch deck or a version of it is out there in the world with its crazy gag-order vibes, and — NEW FUN TWIST — this time I heard that the Blue Jays are (allegedly) also asking craft brewers for a shit ton of money as part of their partnership.
It’s mentioned briefly on the last page of the 2020 deck, but as part of their partnership agreement, the Jays were asking brewers for “commitment to annual investment,” including “commitment to a two year agreement.” Translation: Pay up, craft beer bitches. According to multiple sources I spoke to leading into the 2022 season (none of whom would go on the record for fear of reprisals) that annual investment was (allegedly) $100,000.
$100,000 a year (allegedly) with a commitment to a two year commitment just to sell your beer, presumably at a loss, at the Rogers Centre to me is a fairly insane proposition–especially when you consider that the details of the “commitment” essentially bar a brewery from leveraging the partnership for virtually any marketing efforts.
Who the fuck would go for this?
Well, presumably Muskoka Brewery, Amsterdam Brewery, and Cowbell Brewery, all of whom were (very quietly, shut up!) announced as brands available for sale during the 2022 season.
Specifically, tucked into press releases from April about the improved fan experience (The stadium is not as dark now! Cheap hot dogs!), we learned that the Jays would be pouring 16 “craft” beers in 2022:
- Goose Island IPA
- Mill St. Organic Lager
- Mill St. Blue Wave
- Mill St. Organic Sangria
- Archibald – Chipie American Pale Ale
- Banded Peak – Mt. Crushmore Pilsner
- Stanley Park Brewing – Trail Hopper IPA
- Muskoka Brewery – Tread Lightly
- Muskoka Brewery – Detour ISA
- Muskoka Brewery – Hazed and Confused IPA
- Cowbell – Smooth Sailing Light Lager
- Cowbell – Absent Landlord Kolsch Ale
- Cowbell – Hazy Days IPA
- Amsterdam – 3 Speed Lager
- Amsterdam – Blonde
- Amsterdam – Boneshaker IPA
To even a casual beer fan it should be laughable to see that over 60% of these “craft” breweries (Goose Island, Mill Street, Archibald, Branded Peak, and Stanley Park) are actually owned by AB InBev, the deep-pocketed, largest beer company in the world with whom the Jays have long enjoyed a “partnership.” But it is crazy to me to think that Muskoka, Amsterdam, and Cowbell (allegedly) coughed up $100,000 for the privledge of being sold along these crafty big beer options.
I reached to the Blue Jays about this shortly after opening day, but they cited “the volume of requests around Opening Night” as a reason they couldn’t grant me an interview. But they did provide their boilerplate press release about the improved fan experience (seriously it’s so much less dark! The screens are bigger!). A follow up question specifically about the rumour of a $100,000 payola request was not answered.
I also reached out to Muskoka Brewery, Amsterdam Brewery, and Cowbell Brewery multiple times via multiple channels to ask about the (alleged) $100k and why they might think it was a worthwhile expense if true. Only Muskoka was nice enough to respond and Kyra Dietsch, Marketing Communications Manager for the brewery, was “happy to confirm that [they] are one of three independent craft breweries being offered at the Rogers Centre this year,” but was “unfortunately unable to comment further than that.”
My sources informed me that the (alleged) $100,000 payout was to be partially reimbursed by way of $40,000 in Blue Jays merchandise and tickets, presumably to obfuscate the pay-off should the AGCO come sniffing around, so I guess these breweries will justify the expense by treating bar managers and owners to games and Jays swag — enabling the stinky, shitty wheel of cash incentives to continue to churn in bars and restaurants and limit our choices as a consumer. More Muskoka, Amsterdam, and Cowbell hospitality creating new draft line opportunities. Hooray?
To me, this is largely an insane and short-sighted deal. Aside from being able to treat the bar staff at Jack Astors to a free seat at a third place team’s games and throw them a Jays tshirt, the marketing potential (for $100,000 a year x2, allegedly!) is extremely limited by the terms of the agreement. It’s sad that small and medium-sized local breweries were asked to (allegedly) pay to get in the door at the Rogers Centre, but, frankly, sadder still to see that some actually did it.
So next time you’re at a Jays game, don’t resent having to pay $13 for a local beer. The breweries there (allegedly) have a lot of expenses to recoup. I guess just enjoy the rare chance to finally have a local beer at the Rogers Centre?
Just don’t fucking tweet about it or it might not be there next time you go.