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Hockey’s beer wars: Labatt draws ire of Molson, NHL over ‘Playoff Payoff’ promotion

Harrison Mooney
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For the second time this year, the Labatt Brewing Company, which brews Budweiser in Canada, is facing criticism for skirting the rules in their attempts to market their beer to hockey fans.

Back in February, the company was criticized for their "Flash fans" Super Bowl ad for allegedly "exploiting every day folks" by making the commercial with non-unionized labour. Now Budweiser is coming under fire for their recent "Playoff Payoff" promotion, which promises "Hockey tickets for life" to the winner.

In actuality, the winner will receive tickets for 50 years to the home games of the Canadian team of his or her choice. The problem with this: Budweiser can't promise NHL tickets, because the NHL isn't a partner on the promotion.

In August 2011, the NHL inked a deal with Molson, much to the chagrin of Labatt, who took the matter to court. They underscored the importance of the sponsorship rights in an affidavit filed with the Ontario Superior Court. From the Globe & Mail:

"The NHL and the access it provides to Labatt ... is the single greatest opportunity to grow Labatt's share in Canada," Kyle Norrington, the marketing director of Budweiser and regional brands for Labatt in Canada, wrote in an affidavit filed with the Ontario Superior Court. "There is no other substitute for this national access to these consumers. The nexus of sports / heritage / emotional / tradition in hockey has no other Canadian comparable."

Since losing the suit, the Labatt company has been tasked with continuing to tie their brand to Canadian hockey fans while avoiding the sticky little issue of not having NHL licensing rights. The Flash Fans ad was a great example, as it tapped into the spirit of hockey without mentioning the NHL.

This most recent promotion toes the line expertly as well. Because it never explicitly says the tickets will be NHL tickets, according to Gordon Hendren, president of Charlton Strategic Research, it breaks no rules. (Hey man, the AHL playoffs are going on too. Maybe someone really wants Abbotsford Heat tickets.)

From the Financial Post:

"When a winner is declared, and if that winner chooses NHL tickets, at some point Labatt will have to deliver on NHL tickets." But until that happens, [Hendren] said, the NHL likely will not or cannot sue based on a future hypothetical breach of regulations.

Ferg Devins, spokesman for the NHL's official beer sponsor, Molson, said the promotion might not explicitly promise NHL tickets, but its presence during the playoffs would lead most consumers to believe it is.

If that breach should come, Labatt has a way around that as well: Rather than providing the tickets, they might just provide the cash value of the tickets and allow the winner to purchase them himself.

Or buy a solid gold house. Whatever. By then, the contest will have succeeded in tying Labatt to the NHL in an indirect and, most importantly, legal way.

The NHL could only distance themselves from the contest in a brief statement released last week:

Dear NHL Fans,

You may have heard about a contest that is currently being run in Canada promoting the chance to win "hockey tickets for life" to a Canadian hockey team's games. We want our fans to know that the NHL has no affiliation with that promotion, and we can offer no assurances to our fans that the desired tickets will be available to the winner.

The statement went on to redirect fans to the promotions being run by Molson, the NHL's official sponsor.  The Maple Leafs, Oilers, Senators, and Canadiens all re-posted the statement on their individual websites. The Canucks, Jets, and Flames, however, have individual team sponsorships with Labatt that complicate the issue, so they did not.

Something tells me this won't be the last we hear of the NHL's beer wars.

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