How and why did light beer come to be the choice of NFL viewers?

football beer helmet It’s time for the Big Game. Or, actually, the last three Big Games of the NFL season. And no drink says “football” like wine! Actually, although Sunday’s NY-SF game could be framed as something of a sommelier showdown between two of the highest wine-consuming cities, I’m fine to cede the discussion of the day to football’s natural advertising companion, beer.

The question on my mind: how did light beer come to be the choice of NFL viewers? Fully one out of every two beers sold in America today is a light (or “lite,” if you prefer) beer. It didn’t always used to be this way as light beers were a relative niche marketed for women or people interested in watching calories. Somehow, gazing over the five-layer dip at the displays of modern machismo onscreen (or sporting a beer guzzling helmet, as above), NFL viewers don’t strike me as the most likely demographic to be counting calories.

The easy answer is that marketing told viewers to reach for a lite beer. Bud Light paid $1.2 billion to be the official beer of the NFL starting this year. And before that, it was Coors Lite. So much lite!

So if ads, ads and more ads are the answer to how, that leaves us wondering why Big Beer would want to “light” up America? Perhaps they are virtuous, trying to reduce the country’s caloric intake. Or maybe it has to do with their own bottom line, not America’s waist line, since light beer has fewer calories (and less taste) than “regular” beer, therefore it needs fewer of the inputs such as hops and barley (although Big Beers often use rice or corn as these data show).

But reducing calories in beer basically means reducing alcohol: A Budweiser has about 145 calories but a Bud light has 115 and the alcohol levels are 5.0% and 4.2%, respectively. According to this website, a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has 175 calories and 5.6% alcohol and a 7.0% alcohol IPA might come in at 218 calories. So basically, having two Bud Lights is the caloric and alcohol equivalent of having one IPA, such as the excellent Titan IPA from Great Divide brewery. Hmm, not a tough decision for me. Coming from the world of wine, where labeling is mandatory if not always accurate, I’m surprised that not all beers have the abv on the label but that would go a long way in helping drinkers make their own calculations about consumption.

If beer is merely an alcohol delivery device for NFL viewers, as a friend suggested to me, then pushing light beer would make viewers reach for that extra beer. Of course, consuming more liquid would also mean more trips to the bathroom but the last time I checked, Anheuser Busch wasn’t collecting a toll at men’s rooms. But what AB/InBev and the other big producers do want is more unit sales, which fits right in with the volume mentality. Also, sales from Big Beer have been declining while craft beer sales have been soaring, up 16% year-over-year. To illustrate just how much momentum craft beer has, consider the fact that according to Brewers Association, there are currently 1,949 craft breweries in the US and an (eye)lid-popping 915 about to open. By pushing light beer, with fewer calories and flavor, Big Beer appears to be propping up an ailing (aleing?) legacy business and ignoring the craft beer phenomenon (although Bud did acknowledge the importance of the category by buying Goose Island).

How do you explain the puzzle of light beer and the NFL?

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25 Responses to “How and why did light beer come to be the choice of NFL viewers?”


  1. Total domestic craft beer production in 2010 was just shy of 10 million barrels, while production of Bud Light alone, in 2011, was 17.7 million barrels. The raw numbers suggest that A-B and their parent company are focusing on maintaining output, which, even though declining over time, still crushes craft beer.


  2. Well for making money it makes sense less alc = more drinking beer = more selling beer

    Plus that its cheaper to make its a win/win for profits


  3. I’ll try to answer your question with a question: five-layer dip wine pairing? Or is it impossible?

    That aside, I should note that in the UK (perhaps throughout the EU?), ABV data is required by law on the label (as well as on taps in pubs). It is useful as in the immortal words of The Eagles, “Some drink to remember, some drink to forget.”


  4. Scott- True, craft beer production is much small than even one brand, as you point out. And there will always be a craft and mass markets. But it is reassuring that as Big Beer spends billions on advertising a product with declining sales, craft beer has such a handsome growth rate.

    Weston – Exactly.

    Andrew – thanks for stopping by! Indeed, that’s a very astute question about pairing wine and five-layer dip. We supersized it, as is our wont, to make it seven-layers!
    http://www.drvino.com/2010/01/08/seven-layer-dip-wine-pairing/

    Good to know about the UK labeling. Makes sense. Now if only all beers would have clear, decipherable freshness dating on labels!


  5. If Yellow Tail spent umpty bazillion dollars on ads with cute girls and funny animals they’d no doubt be the favored beverage of the Stuper Bowl.


  6. Interesting that Dr Vino’s main ad today is for a beer fest…


  7. Yes, the EASY answer IS that marketing told viewers to reach for a lite beer, but it’s also ridiculously simple-minded. Everyone in advertising knows that ads don’t mandate purchases; if they did, all American men would own at least 3 cars and be drunk all the time, while all the women would be up to their eyebrows in hair color and makeup.Advertising for light beer almost from the beginning did what advertising does best: introduce and explain the product–and spread the word.Some smart cookie right away hit on emphasizing Lite’s ‘less filling’ aspect.That’s important because fans at sports bars, tailgate parties and such typically do not want to get wasted–they want to ‘ingest mass quantities,’ to have a football game’s worth of party atmosphere with their pals. That’s at least 3, 4 hours, not counting pre-game and post-game. Few people can drink regular beer for that long and still be on their feet. Men drink most of the beer in the U.S. and so they are the primary audience for Lite. But, increasingly, sports-and-beer social events have been attracting women, who do not want a] to be bloated in 30 minutes and b] have their husbands offensively and maybe dangerously drunk at the party, and at the same time c] don’t want to lose their husbands every weekend.Hence women are a bonus secondary audience for Lite, esp. because many tailgate parties are family affairs.

    The advertising agencies have done a brilliant job here. One example of their cleverness is the way they marginalized any suggestion that Lite
    was for sissies by creating ads in which two big, burly sports-fan-type men would have testosterone-fueled arguments about Lite. One would yell ‘More taste’and the other would shout ‘Less filling!’ Thus the sissy-factor
    was elbowed off the table, and Lite was legitimized for sports nuts.

    And the success of Lite has, I’m certain, absolutely no effect on sales of craft beer.


  8. I remember going to a craft brewpub in Ohio and having some amazing beers when three 40-something guys come in. What do they order? Three Bud-Lites.

    I wanted to yell at them. Some people just like slightly flavored alcohol water.


  9. Gee, Chris–they don’t like what you like. What’s it to you?


  10. Most people I would doubt take the time to taste what they drink and too often what they eat. Look at all the fast food out there. If it is cheap and people get a buzz they will buy it.


  11. Quizicat – An interesting hypothesis. Of course, YellowTail is one of the few wine brands that actually does advertise on TV. Maybe they will be the first with a Super Bowl ad?

    I thought you were from Maryland–aren’t you excited about the Ravens?

    Jean-Luc – Thanks for stopping by. The 250 x 300 box on the top of the sidebar is run by Google ads. I do not control which ads you see; rather, Google chooses which ads to display there based on content of the page and your recent search history (if you are logged in). So a beer fest is probably what they thought was the most enticing to get readers to click. If you go to a different page on the site, you will probably see a different ad in that space.


  12. Bill – Please, “Tastes great!” “Less Filling!” Bob Uecker would be disappointed with your memory. ;-) In reality, of course, light beers don’t really taste great but, as you say, it’s marketing.

    Chris – One of my friends has a party every fall and gets a keg of delicious IPA from a local craft brewery. At the last party, he told me that he also got a 12-pack of Coors Lite because too many people complained about not liking the IPA and wanting a light beer…Their loss, from my perspective, but, hey, different strokes for different folks.

    John – Sad but true. But if a beer drinker doesn’t care about taste and just wants a buzz, then why not just stick to “regular” Bud, which is higher alcohol?


  13. Bob Uecker would be disappointed with your memory? What about me? Truly I am shamed by her bungle. But my point still holds: clever admen took control of the argument, making it taste vs.less filling, putting the ‘girly beer’ aspect out of the picture. Lite beer has just enough alcohol,when combined with plenty of company, lots of excitement and partisan fervor, to provide just enough buzz. A good time is had by all and, because of the low alcohol, the term ‘Stuper Bowl’ (I gather ‘stupor’ was intended) just doesn’t apply.

    ‘Different strokes’?–exactly; just accept it. Those who insist on sneering at others whose tastes differ, are no more and no better than mere (and beer)snobs.


  14. I’m not so sure that big-beer isn’t marketing to a calorie counting crowd. My evidence is Coke Zero. Women drink Diet Coke, but Coke Zero is clearly marketed towards males (cocacolazero.com). Whether or not Coke Zero is successful, Coca Cola and light beer are after the same market. Think early-twenty, ex-pseudo-athlete, working-out-every-day-in-the-interest-of-getting-laid type of guy. In other words, the characters we see in beer commercials.

    I know its not you or me, or anybody we want to meet, but it is not inconceivable that marketing departments have invented him.


  15. My most recent rule of thumb has been, “don’t eat or drink anything that advertises on television.” That rules out Bud Lite, Applebees, and crappy chocolate. One of the best ideas I ever had in my life


  16. p.s. I just visited friends in Florida, who all drink Budwiser and Coors Lite and such. Compared to the craft beers in Oregon, I couldn’t detect any alcohol. They just made me pee a lot


  17. Dr. V less calories but in the long run probably more…


  18. I agree with the tailgate hypothesis. Even those with hollow legs find it hard to drink for 4 hours and remain on their feet, let alone fit to drive.

    The craft beer movement is also seeing the trend to “lite” with the new emphasis on “session beers” (with a goal of appx. 4% ABV, though with some taste).

    I love a good West Coast IPA myself, but I know that two of those and a Belgian and I’m done for the evening. Give me Miller and a bathroom (plus some drinking water) and I can drink for hours.


  19. To be honest, I love wine while watching football and wish more sports bars had some decent choices! My dream, but oh well… A ton of football players are into wine so why not the bars where we watch? http://grapefriend.com/2011/09/06/gridiron-grapefriends-roger-goodell/


  20. Tullia, you’d better watch your back. You’ve just committed heresy.

    Grapefriend, the reason is partly convenience: A bar can satisfy its beer drinkers with a rather limited range of brands; wine drinkers will want much more variety, plus a choice of bottle or by-the-glass, the latter involving more handling. The profit margin per serving is likely higher for beer, and big brewers also give big discounts and freebie (beer mats, napkins, etc.].And I’ll bet it’s easier to sell beer after beer after beer than it is to sell one bottle of wine. Surely there’s a barkeep in the audience who can give us the facts?

    And football and soccer seem to go naturally with beer, while I don’t know what sports go with wine. Snooker, maybe? Chess? Oh, I’ve got it–dressage.


  21. wine & chess go great together


  22. I meant “give me” in the colloquial sense. I’d rather nurse the good stuff than drink a 6-pack of mass produced lite beer.

    However, based on my college band days, I do have proof that the lite beer + water + bathroom access + football game = me still sober enough to play my instrument. (I have not actually tested the driving, nor do I plan to.)


  23. Dear Dr, I did notice this right after.
    PS-I do stop by every day. Keep up the good work


  24. Light beer became the beer of choice because they have the money to market like crazy and tell people who have never tried beer before, what they should drink.


  25. Here’s a Bloomberg article about the sluggish sales for light beer. It makes a direct link between wine-loving and craft beer:

    “Light beer is ceding ground as cabernet-loving baby boomers and millennials weaned on exotic cocktails seek more complex flavors in their brews.”

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-26/light-beer-fights-for-life-as-craft-brews-invade-shelves.html


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