Last call? Will takeover force Bud to scale back?

By WILL GRAVES/AP Sports Writer Published:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Is the King of Beers ready to punt away its crown?

For years, the folks at Anheuser-Busch have spent lavishly to remind fans that nothing goes better while watching the big game than a 6-pack brought to you by (insert Harry Caray impersonation here)

"your good friends at Budweiser."

Spuds MacKenzie. The Whassup Guys. Those creepy lizards. The Clydesdales. For decades, countless time-outs during every major sporting event from the Super Bowl to the Daytona 500 have featured classic commercials that are sometimes more memorable than the games themselves.

Yet in the wake of Anheuser-Busch's $52 billion deal with InBev SA, there's some speculation the thrifty Belgium-based company could slash some of the sports sponsorship and advertising deals that have made Anheuser-Busch brands a fixture in stadiums, living rooms and refrigerators across the country.

"There's nervousness out there, and it's palpable," said Eric Shepard, executive editor for Beer Marketer's Insights, a trade magazine.

While InBev, whose corporate leaders opt to fly in economy rather than first class, tends to make money by finding ways to cut costs, experts don't think it would be wise to pull out of a sports market Anheuser-Busch has dominated for years.

"If they decide to go in a different direction, they could be playing with fire with the brand's long-term success," said Steve Solomon, a former TV executive who now helps run a New York-based sports entertainment company.

Anheuser-Busch has been quiet since the deal was announced earlier this week. A spokesman for Anheuser-Busch said Tony Ponturo, Vice President of Global Media and Sports Marketing for Anheuser-

Busch, declined to comment.

InBev Chief Executive Officer Carlos Brito said Monday he knows his new company's ability to reach consumers through sports is one of the reasons it's such an attractive brand.

"What we see in Anheuser-Busch is its marketing expertise, and that's one of the pillars of why they built such great brands," Brito said.

It's hard to imagine a Super Bowl without a series of often hilarious spots from Budweiser. While Coors Light is the official beer of the NFL, Budweiser invests heavily on advertising during NFL games and ran seven spots during the February Super Bowl at a cost of more than $21 million.

With an audience of nearly 100 million, advertising during the Super Bowl is money well spent.

Besides, if Anheuser-Busch gives up its coveted place on Super Sunday, the networks won't have

trouble finding someone else to pay the premium " expected to be about $3 million for a 30-spot " at next year's game, particularly a rival beer company that's been outbuzzed by Bud ads for years.

"It's a competitive category," said Brad Adgate with Horizon Media. "Is this going to bring back the beer wars? Anheuser-Busch won the beer wars back in the '80s. Why would they relinquish that?"

NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said it's "premature" to speculate about how Budweiser's future in the sport could be affected by the purchase.

"Whether you're sponsoring a car or an event at a track, companies continue to get great value for the dollars they invest in the sport," he said.

NASCAR without Budweiser seems about as likely as Sprint Cup points leader and villain of the moment Kyle Busch playing nice with his fellow drivers.

The Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway each February is the unofficial kickoff of the season, and the company's familiar red is splashed across the front of the No. 9 car driven by Kasey Kahne, and team owner Gillett Evernham Motorsports doesn't expect that to change, CEO Tom Reddin said.

The feeling is the same at TV networks, many of whom have gotten rich thanks to Budweiser's aggressive advertising. The company spent over $300 million marketing itself on TV last year, part of a $1.35 billion national advertising budget according to AdAge.com.

"Anheuser-Busch has been a tremendous supporter of televised sports and we expect them to continue to be," said LeslieAnne Wade, senior vice president of communications at CBS Sports.

Officials at the major professional sports agree. The company will remain the official beer of the National Hockey League, and beer vendors at some Major League Baseball parks will continue to invite fans to get their cold Bud here.

MLB president and chief operating officer Bob DuPuy said he's encouraged by InBev's comments about Anheuser-Busch's future and looks "forward to the relationship continuing to prosper."

Part of Anheuser-Busch's marketing brilliance has been its ability to successfully cater to its core audience, sometimes far away from the bright lights of national television.

During home football and basketball games at the University of Louisville, fans often roar while watching an in-house Budweiser ad that features game highlights and local attractions.

"People love that spot because it's customized," said Kyle Moats, associate athletic director for national marketing at Louisville. "It's not the Clydesdales. It's not stock. It's about us."

And Anheuser-Busch has often been about sports. It's target group is males 21-34, guys who like to spend their weekends with a brew in one hand and the remote in the other. Going in a different direction doesn't make the most sense.

Let's put it this way, don't expect Carrie Bradshaw and the girls to trade cosmos for Bud Light with Lime in the next "Sex and the City" movie.

Even if InBev tones down Anheuser-Busch's profile at sporting events, it could be years to determine how it might affect the product's market share. To borrow a phrase from one of its competitors, it's all about the beer, isn't it?

Sipping a cold one during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night, Will Kaplan lamented the sale of an American icon to a foreign company but doesn't think he needs to be inundated with commercials to choose a Bud while watching the game.

"I don't think anyone's obligated to do anything," said Kaplan, 39. "It would be nice but I'm under no false pretenses. Business is business."

For years, Budweiser's business has been on full display inside packed stadiums and sports bars from across the nation.

Only time will tell if this Bud's still for you.

AP Sports Writers Ron Blum and Howie Rumberg in New York contributed to this report.

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