Modern Marketing Brand Strategy

From Budweiser to T-Mobile: How MLB’s top sponsors are stepping to the plate

By Max Simpson | Freelancer

April 7, 2022 | 19 min read

Major League Baseball’s Opening Day 2022 is upon us. And with that celebration comes both established and new partners chomping at the bit for a new season. Here’s a detailed look at the unique ways brands are now intertwined with America’s favorite pastime.

For a season unlike any other, Major League Baseball (MLB) is looking to carve out distinct partnerships that cater to both the brands and (most importantly) the fans they look to attract. Campaigns rooted in experiential, charity, ballpark experience, member benefits, education and meaningful activations further the league’s vision of bringing the most out of their partnerships.

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Bud goes local with its MLB sponsorship

“Sponsorship has really transformed over the years,” says Noah Garden, chief revenue officer of MLB. “People just wanted association. Now they want integration with fans.”

MLB is continuing to evolve the game both on and off the field. From a macro perspective, MLB continues to make structural changes that provide additional value for partners and for the league itself. For one, MLB worked in tandem with Minor League Baseball (MiLB) officials to restructure the Minor Leagues in a way that adds visibility to partnerships. Everything from MLB to MiLB to Little Leagues serves as different touchpoints for partners that are looking to blanket brand affinity while activating differently across diverse audiences.

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“The Minor Leagues allow one to reach remote and diverse parts of the country,” says Garden. “There are 40m tickets sold in Minor Leagues throughout the year. It serves as a great untapped opportunity and helps to raise the visibility of our partnerships in general.”

Another shift comes internally from MLB. The league offices used to be heavily reliant on sales personnel, with a majority of the partnerships team focusing on acquiring new business. Now the league has leveraged the flexibility of their robust platform, doubling down on strategic growth of current partners while carefully choosing which new partners to bring into the fold. As a result, their current staff sits as a mix of 80/20% activation to sales.

“Demand has been very strong for partnering with us,” says Garden. “Fans love the excitement and the activations that come from our partnerships activating at tentpole events and throughout the year. For every partnership we are onboarding, we want to align them with a program that brings the most out of each partnership.”

That onboarding process continues with measuring success. With MLB, success is different for every partner. For some, it might come down to driving traffic to locations. For others, it’s utilizing product or built around education pieces. The league has leaned into being nimble within its partnership planning. For those campaigns that work, it happily works with partners to double down around tentpole events. For activations that may miss the mark, it is willing to work with partners to see how progressions can be made and adjustments can be pivoted, all while building continuity.

This has manifested in a variety of ways. Some newer partners have parlayed their partnership into content such as working with the league on exclusive content and programming (Apple); carving out non-traditional categories such as ‘Official sleep wellness partner’ filled with unique sweepstakes throughout the year (Mattress Firm); or rewarding cardholders with redeemable tickets and experiences all season long (Capital One).

For established partners, that brand relevancy is received as second nature to avid and casual fans alike. Whether it’s Chevrolet infusing quintessential American foods at last year’s Field of Dreams in an homage to the brand’s 1975 jingle, or the iconic ‘Steal a base, Steal a taco’ promotion from Taco Bell, the name of the game continues to be about ‘fun’ for MLB.

“We share the same values as our partners,” says Garden. “It’s the halo effect of building the association between two brands. Beforehand, that association was all that brands sought. Now we both seek that association because of everything that the partnership achieves and how it improves the quality of the game for the fans. That’s where the magic happens.

“We want to build relationships with partners that resonate today, but also ones where you can look back 10 years in time and achieve that nostalgia and put a smile on someone’s face.”

Here are some in-depth breakdowns on what to expect from a handful of partnerships this season:

Budweiser: connecting with individual fans

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The longest-standing partner of MLB has cemented the connection between Budweiser as America’s beer and baseball as America’s pastime. Budweiser’s emphasis is to play a meaningful connecting role within communities. Whether it’s being there for special moments in front of a large crowd or connecting one-to-one with fans, the brand’s goal is clear.

“Our higher level goal is to be the best partner in the sport,” says Daniel Blake, group vice-president marketing, Budweiser & Value at Anheuser-Busch InBev. “We strive to deliver amazing experiences for baseball fans and Budweiser fans, and are proud to be there for those moments.”

These experiences often resonate in the form of unique access. Whether it’s behind-the-scenes access with one of the teams that Budweiser partners with or being in the form of celebratory beers in the locker room for those intimate moments of victory, the connection to baseball fans is key.

The brand’s programming isn’t just about doing one thing really well. These planning elements began eight to nine months ago, long before the onus of the 2022 season was upon us.

“The key is to plan things in advance and [have] a team in place that’s very nimble,” says Blake. “Fans can appreciate a brand that’s flexible in what they’re doing and doing it with intention. We are all about enhancing the experience for fans watching rather than taking away from it.”

Two massive brand integrations are embedded on a local and national scale. In collaboration with 14 of Budweiser’s team partnerships, the brand created custom team cans that truly give the look and feel of the iconic Budweiser brand.

Another big-time campaign: the ‘Hit the Buds’ program.

Introduced for the 2020 World Series, the campaign is back in force to provide a fun twist for lucky fans in attendance. If a home run lands in the Budweiser ‘Hit the Buds’ seating section, it unlocks great prizes for fans in that section. Transitioning from exclusively tentpole moments to an ‘always-on’ scenario, the brand will further leverage this program to activate with local teams within their ballparks.

The brand will further tap into the much-anticipated Opening Day by providing great content throughout the year, honoring iconic moments and events throughout baseball history and bringing these moments to the forefront of culture.

So what makes for such a fruitful and evolving partnership after all these years?

“MLB has been so supportive with the programming we want to execute,” says Blake. “Other properties may be hesitant to try new programs or take risks. MLB embraces new tactics and new ways to embrace fans. Budweiser and MLB is a true partnership, not just a sponsorship. We are just scratching the surface with what we can do.”

Since 1980, Budweiser has been a major player in the world of baseball. And with at least five more years of partnership to look forward to, it’s a unity that will keep on growing.

Corona: through the lime lens

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With the beer category being split for the first time, Corona will hold the new designation as ‘Official Cerveza of MLB.’

Tapping into a growing Hispanic heritage, Corona has prided itself on resonating with that audience. Wanting to bring a fresh perspective to America’s game, the brand identified MLB as an ideal partner. Given the touchpoints throughout the year and the timing of the season, it was a natural fit.

“I’m biased but I can’t think of a better pairing on a hot summer day than a cold Corona in hand watching baseball,“ says Rene Ramos, vice-president, field marketing, lifestyle & experiential marketing for Constellation Brands. “We are very particular with who we want to work with. We want to emanate a very relaxed approach and live the fine life. We bring that chill factor.”

Wanting to put the ‘Corona lens’ on MLB, the brand is excited to embrace a broader fanbase, with a strong Hispanic group of supporters already in the fold. According to Ramos, 20 million consumers identify as both Hispanic and as baseball fans. That, coupled with 30% of MLB players having Hispanic descent, means the brand is committed to telling their story and their love for the game.

The brand will employ a tiered approach across its core product lines. With Corona Extra, the brand will boost Hispanic heritage celebrations throughout the year. With Corona Premier, the line will activate during MLB’s summer games, complete with social interactions and voting options, allowing fans to vote on the afternoon matchup to be amplified for the upcoming week. With Corona Hard Seltzer, the line will serve as the ‘Official hard seltzer of Minor League Baseball,’ showcasing a new touchpoint where the brand can connect with different customers in a different way.

“We take pride in aligning with Hispanic heritage,” says Ramos. “We want to provide a platform for fans and even young players, such as Fernando Tatis Jr and Francisco Lindor, to share their platform and tell their perspective.”

In addition to curated content, Corona will hit the ground running with an Opening Day ticket promotion. For a chance to win tickets, fans must follow @coronaextrausa on Twitter, reply to the Corona MLB Opening Day ticket giveaway post, tag a 21+ friend and include #CoronaMLBtix.

The partnership will be furthered with All-Star Game activations. Being in LA, which serves a top market for Corona, the brand will utilize ambassadors, hospitality elements and branding for one of MLB’s most popular tentpole events.

“MLB wants to ‘future-proof’ the game,” says Ramos. “We share the vision of continuing to evolve and make life exciting.”

Mastercard: standing up to cancer

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Another established partner, Mastercard celebrated its 25th year as an Official Partner of MLB.

Over the years, the brand has hit on several business objectives within the partnership. From integrating its digital payments platform within MLB ballparks to fortifying Stand Up to Cancer moments to creating Priceless.com customer experiences and prioritizing small businesses, the Mastercard team prioritizes the ‘why’ behind its activations.

“Experiences still matter more than things,“ says Michael Goldstein, vice-president – head of sponsorships, North America for Mastercard. “We launched ‘The Power of Priceless’ long ago with the takeaway image of a father and son going to a baseball game. Baseball has been ingrained in what we do for a long time.”

True to its ‘Priceless’ credo, Mastercard builds upon a bevy of activations throughout the year. Many of these campaigns center around MLB’s tentpole events in an effort to provide unrivaled fan moments.

“We want to make sure consumers feel when they have a Mastercard, they’re getting experiences they normally wouldn’t be getting,” says Goldstein. “Whether it’s All-Star Game experiences or throwing out a first pitch at the World Series, we see the value in being with us.”

Mastercard works across select local teams as well with fortified relationships with the Red Sox, Yankees, Braves and Dodgers. These local markets allow for a number of marquee opportunities to take place.

First, Mastercard interweaves its digital payment platforms within each team’s respective ballpark. With contactless payment already becoming the norm in recent years, the pandemic accelerated the need for such technologies. For consumers, it serves as an easy, clean form of transaction. For venues, it provides a better experience with getting fans through seemingly endless lines.

Mastercard has also solidified its Home Team Advantage small business program. Sensing how hard small businesses were hit by Covid-19, the brand wanted to make a difference. Working within 75 miles of each of their sponsored teams, the partnership sought out small businesses within these local markets. Giving small businesses a spotlight, digital tools were offered to maximize e-commerce platforms, and participating teams plugged these local businesses to boost visibility. Additionally, one winner per market (Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles) was awarded a $10,000 grant to help get back on their feet.

“It was pretty cool to see last year when one of our local teams we work with [Braves] made the World Series,” says Goldstein. “We were able to further amplify a small business on a national and international stage.”

The Mastercard activations also resonate on a national stage. Stand Up to Cancer is a powerful campaign that showcases Mastercard branding during moments of pivotal awareness. The All-Star Game presented by Mastercard offers unique experiences both for small business winners to throw out the first pitch and to activate with the Dodgers for contactless experiences throughout Dodger Stadium. Sustainability is also in play for the brand as they created the Priceless Planet Coalition (PPC), with MLB signing on as a partner.

FTX: got crypto?

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Joining on after the All-Star Game last season, FTX made a splash as the Official Cryptocurrency Exchange brand of MLB.

“FTX approaches partnerships by looking to have people share the interest in what we’re building,” says Lou Frangella, vice-president of Partnerships for FTX.US. “We look for entities that resonate as we have a desire to pull off unique ‘firsts.’”

Those firsts include a branding play as it marked the first time there was a sponsored umpire patch. It also marked the first time cryptocurrency was available for baseball fans to accept.

With cryptocurrency being a new venture to many, FTX balances having something for everyone. Their audience includes those uneducated in web3 or not as open to learning as others. It also includes enthusiasts that live and breathe blockchain technology throughout.

“Fan engagement is always important, especially with something so new,” says Frangella. “It’s definitely a balance of education and awareness.”

The cryptocurrency brand stayed true to its push for providing exciting moments. The partnership forged the newly-created platform for ‘Moonblast presented by FTX,’ a clever combination of a ‘moonshot’ (long and far home-run) and the noteworthy crypto term ‘to the moon,’ to generate engaging social content and unlock a charity component. With home runs making for engaging social content, an online ‘Moonblast pick ‘em’ competition allowed fans to guess and pick which player would receive the longest moonblast, with the winner receiving $100,000 in Bitcoin.

This promotion was amplified during last year’s playoffs. Defined as home runs hit 425 ft and above, FTX donated $10,000 for every moonblast hit during the 2021 Playoffs. The ante was upped during the World Series as the donation increased to $100,000 donated per moonblast. All in all, $550,000 was donated, with the player who hit the longest Moonblast – Freddie Freeman – distributing the donation across four different charities of his choice.

For Opening Weekend, FTX will donate $1,000 for each moonblast hit. This campaign will continue throughout the season, with the brand donating $100 per Moonblast. And in continuation of this year’s moonblast marketing, FTX partnered with the player that hit the most moonblasts during last year’s regular season: MVP Shohei Ohtani. Having taken a stake in FTX, and compensated in crypto, Ohtani will be a face of FTX’s campaign for this season.

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“Shohei represents a lot of what we do on and off the field,” says Frangella. “He’s very excited about crypto and web3. Everything with him has been 100% authentic and it’s a great extension of our league partnership.”

With their first full season of the partnership ahead, FTX is excited to build upon established activations and continue to build that brand relevance and understanding with fans.

“We try to approach activation in a thoughtful way. From a results standpoint, it drives new ways we can get people involved. We truly learn a lot engaging with fans online and on-site. From a content perspective, we will continue to get a bit more intimate with what our experiences will become.”

T-Mobile: no day like Tuesday

T-Mobile is entering its tenth year of partnering with MLB. With an evolved partnership over the years, the magenta brand is always on the hunt for new, immersive ways for fans to experience baseball.

One of the staples of the partnership is the cellular giant’s offering of free MLB.TV through ‘T-Mobile Tuesdays.’ Into the seventh year of the activation and having given out $1.5bn worth of deals since launching in 2016, T-Mobile customers streamed 36m hours of MLB.TV last season alone.

“Our customers love baseball, so it’s also important we give them some of the best perks as part of our partnership,” says Mike Belcher, senior vice-president of Business Development Partnerships at T-Mobile.

The partnership continues to support current and future MLB fans alike. From a grassroots level, the brand continued to support natural disaster recovery in neighboring baseball areas. Additionally, they continued their efforts to help fortify youth sports through the T-Mobile Little League call-up grant program.

The crown jewel of the partnership has been the T-Mobile home run derby. Distinct as one of the most fan-favorite events of All-Star Week, T-Mobile has made its presence known through unique branding and fan activations.

“We’re looking at new ways to enhance live sports viewership over our 5G network,” says Belcher. “Last year, we developed the first-ever hat and catcher cams to give fans first-hand perspectives of what the players were seeing in real-time during the Derby batting practice. We also worked closely with MLB to develop the MLB augmented reality (AR) app to get fans even closer to the game.

With another season on the horizon, T-Mobile is committed to putting fans first.

“We are eager to identify new ways to innovate the fan experience and keep baseball fans connected.”

Dairy Queen: here comes the blizzard

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Today, MLB announced a new partnership with Dairy Queen. As the first sports league sponsorship for Dairy Queen, the DQ Blizzard Treat will serve as the ‘Official Treat of MLB’ and the new Signature Stackburgers the ‘Official Burger of MLB.’

Dairy Queen has also partnered with MLB All-Stars Tim Anderson, Cody Bellinger, Bryce Harper and Fernando Tatis Jr. These players will be promoted through a mix of TV and online spots, on social media and at POS locations within Dairy Queen restaurant menu boards. Furthermore, fans will have an opportunity to decide their favorite combo meal as the ‘Official Combo Meal of MLB’ as Anderson and Harper will put their respective favorite Signature Stackburger and Blizzard Treat to a fan vote.

“We know our fans love baseball as much as they love a Blizzard Treat or a delicious Signature Stackburger, and teaming up with MLB, another iconic summertime favorite, is sure to make this an unforgettable season,” says Becky Fellling, vice-president of marketing communications at American Dairy Queen.

The brand will continue its synchronicity into summertime. Bolstering a charitable component, Dairy Queen will extend its long-time support of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals by sponsoring a Miracle Child and their family to attend this year’s All-Star Game. Additionally, the brand will sponsor Grand Slams throughout the summer. Fans will have a chance to win an MLB Shop gift card after Grand Slams are hit when they engage in Dairy Queen-promoted replay content on social media.

It’s a fascinating season in the works. For fans and partners alike, there’s a lot of new and familiar faces to look forward to ahead of Opening Day.

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