Qatar’s World Cup Beer Ban Is a $75 Million Headache for Budweiser

In a zero-hour switcheroo that has all but blindsided official FIFA beer sponsor Anheuser-Busch InBev, Qatari officials have banned beer sales in and around the country’s eight World Cup venues. The decision to slam the door on alcohol sales is a pricey reversal for the brewer’s world-famous Budweiser brand, which has served as the official beer sponsor for the tournament since 1986.

Budweiser is shelling out $75 million in exchange to what amounts to rescinded pouring rights and various on-site promotional perks in the company’s tenth stint as a global World Cup sponsor. While the alcohol-free Bud Zero will be on tap in Qatar, the two-year-old brand represents just a tiny fraction of A-B’s overall beverage sales, and isn’t likely to find nearly as many takers as the traditional lager. During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, fans necked down 3.2 million beers, of which just 2% were of the non-alcoholic variety.

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The Muslim nation’s late call to ban beer sales comes as A-B is in the midst of negotiating an extension with FIFA, with whom its current sponsorship is set to expire at the end of this year’s tournament.

FIFA conformed the ruling in a statement. “Following discussions between host country authorities and FIFA, a decision has been made to focus the sale of alcoholic beverages on the FIFA Fan Festival, other fan destinations and licensed venues, [thereby] removing sales points of beer from Qatar’s FIFA World Cup 2022 stadium perimeters,” the governing body announced early Friday morning.

Budweiser renewed its FIFA sponsorship in Oct. 2011, a year after Qatar secured the rights to the 2022 World Cup. At the time, Qatari officials were said to have reassured A-B brass with an avowal to relax the country’s rigid restrictions on alcohol sales. While the beer policies appeared to have been finalized in September, it became apparent last week that the host nation was having a change of heart, as Budweiser tents that had been set up outside the perimeters of the various stadiums were suddenly, and unexpectedly, relocated to relatively remote areas.

While A-B reps have yet to comment on the matter, Budweiser’s official Twitter account managed to throw a little shade on the reversal, transmitting the message, “Well, this is awkward…” shortly after FIFA confirmed the news. The tweet was deleted some 85 minutes after it went up.

In a towering act of presumption, FIFA went on to praise Budweiser for its forbearance. “The tournament organizers appreciate AB InBev’s understanding and continuous support to our joint commitment to cater for everyone during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022,” a FIFA rep remarked in the statement.

In addition to throwing a monkey wrench in Budweiser’s month long on-site marketing strategy, the call to shut off the beer taps is not expected to be greeted with good cheer by many of the 1.2 million ticket-holders who have descended upon the tiny peninsular nation. (Looking at you, Three Lions supporters.)

While Budweiser pays the big bucks to market its wares in and around the World Cup, its on-air spend is relatively limited. According to data crunched by the ad-measurement firm EDO, Budweiser was not among Fox’s top 10 in-match spenders during the 2018 tourney. Volkswagen spent the most on commercial units, investing some $4.26 million in ad time, whereas Budweiser’s spend was south of $300,000.

The Football Supporters’ Association, a representative body for soccer fans in England and Wales, noted Friday morning that while not everyone necessarily enjoys a cold one at a match, “the real issue is the last-minute U-turn which speaks to a wider problem—the total lack of communication and clarity from the organizing committee towards supporters.”

As the FSA cautioned, if the people in charge of the 64-match event “can change their minds on this at a moment’s notice, with no explanation,” then World Cup visitors are likely to have “understandable concerns about whether [organizers] will fulfill other promises relating to accommodation, transportation or cultural issues.”

The action gets underway on Sunday, as the host country takes on Ecuador on Fox Sports 1 and Telemundo. The following day marks the first World Cup appearance for the U.S. men’s squad since 2014, as Gregg Berhalter’s charges are set to square off against Wales at 2 p.m. ET in Ahmad bin Ali Stadium. Fox will broadcast the English-language feed, while Telemundo will present the match in Spanish.

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