In 2019, in a posh modern-retro bar, thousands of miles away from home, I bought myself my first ever beer while watching a Champions League match. I don’t consider myself a drinker, even in groups, I rarely take alcohol. and when I do, Vodka or some hard-to-pronounce cocktail is what I’d go for.
Sitting alone in that bar, with several televisions strategically angled to give you the view of the game no matter where you sat, surrounded by a dozen other fans, I instinctively went for a beer.
In 2020, a local brewery opened in my hood. This time, only a couple of blocks away from home and with a local brew in hand, I reflected on my first beer and started connecting sports and beer.
What made me feel like a beer was the appropriate drink for the occasion? Would I have bought that first beer if I weren’t in that bar, watching a game? Who or what was it that wanted me to feel like having a beer? That wasn’t my first game in a bar, but it was my first time alone. I realized there is an uncomfortable and arguably controversial connection between sports and alcohol. Uncomfortable because of how alcohol exists in sports, it’s a bottomless barrel and controversial because of the effects of alcohol and these are things we acknowledge might be a problem but we don’t really talk about them.
According to Wikipedia: “The earliest chemically confirmed barley beer to date was discovered at Godin Tepe in the central Zagros Mountains of Iran, where fragments of a jug, from between 5,400 and 5,000 years ago was found to be coated with beer stone, a by-product of the brewing process.” Although the identity of the first-ever brew master cannot be ascertained, and nobody can truly tell what inspired him to brew beer, this discovery thousands of years ago, tells us that humans have long sought the pleasure of a bottle.
Sports also date back to thousands of years. Humans have also always involved themselves in some sort of physical activity to either entertain themselves, hunt for food, also as a show of skills, strength and defence. The competition also drives it, the desire to prove that you have the edge over others and not just as good, but better.
What do beer and sports have in common aside from dating back centuries?
Beer has captured the hearts of sports fans all around the world in a way that no other drink has. From homes to pubs, to viewing centres and lawns, sports fans all around the world crack open a beer in support and celebration of their favourite team.
All around the world, the culture of beer and its consumption varies greatly. But one constant is how sports fans interact with the fermented liquid.
The presence of beer has a lot to do with how some of these sports came to become mainstream and how we celebrate the victory.
According to the Institute of Alcoholic studies:
“football, and sport more generally, has always enjoyed a mutually supportive relationship with drinking. There was never a time when the two activities existed entirely separately. Most sporting trophies are, after all, cups, the original idea of which was to facilitate the alcoholic celebrations of the victor.
In Britain, pubs and publicans were central to the early development of sport just as today sport is central to the marketing strategies of many of the major drinks companies. By the 16th century, the alehouse was already well established as the main arena for staging skittles, quoits, bowls, wrestling, tennis, cricket, and a large number of events involving animals, such as cock-fighting. To attract the crowds, the publican became the main promoter of sports, arranging matches, providing the prize money and being the bookmaker.”
Beyond fans and a natural love for alcohol, there is a money trail between sports and alcohol. In the early football boom of the 1890s and the revamping in the 1990s financial support from breweries helped keep football teams and the league going.
In the 1890s, when the no-beer rule was introduced to baseball in the US, Cincinnati refused to sign the pledge and was dropped by the League. They went on to form a League with other brewers and half-price beer was a marketing strategy that worked for them.
A careful look at the history of most mainstream sports today, will reveal a relationship with beer.
One thing that most people will agree on, is that sports bring out loyalty and passion in people, throwing in a drink that lowers inhibition and passion will rear its head in different forms. It can be falling off into a gutter somewhere or lodging a fist in the face of an opposing fan.
It’s not all speculation about how sports fans love their beer, there is a statistic to prove it.
The 2016 Harris poll found that: “beer is the clear leader for sports fans. Football (75%), baseball (70%), car racing (55%), and hockey (51%). Beer also tops the list, though to a lesser extent, for basketball (48%), boxing (39%), soccer (34%), beach volleyball (25%), and golf (17%). Following closely in second place for golf is spirits/liquor (14%). One-quarter of regular drinkers associate horse racing first with spirits/liquor (25%), while wine tops the list for tennis (19%).
That same poll went further to claim that, “nearly two-thirds of regular drinkers describe themselves as football fans (63%), while around 4 in 10 say they’re a fan of baseball (43%) and/or basketball (37%). Around 1 in 5 regular drinkers each are fans of hockey (22%), car racing/motorsports (20%), boxing (19%), golf (18%), or soccer (18%).”
Although this study was conducted in America, a careful look at social media, and match day advertising across the world, will show how much sports fans really do enjoy their beer.
While passion, availability, and affordability play a role in the relationship between beer and sports, we also need to circle to the culture of advertising. Sports has always been the playground for big, small, and growing beer brands to prowl for buyers. They’ve always hovered around and it’s difficult and almost feels criminal to watch a game without a glass in hand. Think of a game day set-up without alcohol?
Through the years, we’ve seen calls for beer and alcohol generally to be banned in stadiums
There are rules that limit how much an athlete can associate themselves with an alcoholic brand, those rules hope to influence the behaviour of fans, and limit the influence and presence of alcohol in sports. Fans tend to support the brands and things athletes they like supports, a rule like that hopes to limit the consumption of alcohol by fans.
But there are some things so tied into the very nature of sports that it’ll be almost impossible to take it away and beer is one of such things.
Of course, regulations and danger warnings are sensible things to do but we also have to look at the culture of sports and some of the permissiveness it allows that encourages imbibing alcohol and thinking back to my first beer, maybe on my part, I needed to prove to those strangers that I belonged and understood the language. What was the language? Beer.
It’s a language I’ve understood to be part of the culture of sports from years of being in and around it. Maybe as a woman, alone in a bar, I needed to prove that I knew the rules because that glass opened up conversations and improved my experience.
On one hand, I am a lover of sports and all the joys it brings but on the other, do I need a beer to truly experience it?