Old Style trying to keep presence at Wrigley

CHICAGO -- In the bottom of the seventh inning at the Chicago Cubs home finale Wednesday, a beer vendor walked through the lower bowl of Wrigley Field yelling, “Last call, last call for Old Style.”

“Literally,” an onlooker remarked.

“Yeah, literally last call,” the vendor said with a smile.

The fate of Old Style at Wrigley Field is still undecided, but after the Cubs and Budweiser signed an exclusive marketing deal estimated to be worth around $14 million annually over 10 years, the days of beer vendors hawking Old Style with a distinctive “Hey, Old Style!” could be over.

Old Style, which is brewed in Milwaukee and owned by Los Angeles-based Pabst Blue Ribbon, quickly reacted to the exclusive Bud deal.

Earlier this month, the company created a marketing campaign dubbed, “Decision 2014, Keep Old Style in Wrigley.” Old Style has flooded the market with this plan, from from a website with an online petition to newspaper ads to Twitter campaigns to passing out signs outside of Wrigley.

The Cubs don’t seem impressed.

“There’s a term that they use for what Old Style is doing, it’s grassroots PR and marketing,” Cubs vice president of communications Julian Green said. “It can be very effective. What Old Style knows, what our fans know, we’re going to be considering a number of different offerings next year, including Old Style. I think it’s a bit misinformed for Old Style to have a petition to keep them on the ballot, when we haven’t said they’re off the ballot.”

Pabst Blue Ribbon Chief Marketing Officer Dan McHugh said the company is just being proactive and “listening” to their fans.

“We’re making sure the voice of the consumer is heard loud and clear out there,” he said in a phone conversation. “Quite frankly, this is last thing we want to happen. We have a brand that has sponsored the Cubs for over 60 years. It’s one of the longest ongoing sponsorships in sports. It’s part of the fabric of going to Wrigley Field.”

Some vendors are worried about only being able to sell Budweiser and Bud Light.

“People want a choice,” one vendor told ESPN Chicago, noting he would be happy to sell Goose Island products. Goose Island Brewery, which started in Chicago, is now a subsidiary brand of AB InBev.

But of course, the vendors with the most seniority almost always choose to sell Budweiser, because it sells better. Both beers cost $7.75 at Wrigley Field.

Vince Pesha, the vice president of SEIU Local 1, which represents the vendors, said he thinks one brand in the seats might be better, noting that White Sox and Bears vendors only sell Miller products, while the United Center pushes only Budweiser brands.

“Old Style has really fallen off over the years,” said Pesha, who started vending in 1969. “Our guys have done a lot better selling Budweiser than Old Style. However, it’s a Chicago icon over years and years. I personally think it’s a better opportunity for our guys having Bud exclusively.”

The issue is sticky enough that Cubs officials met with the vendors before a game recently, and reminded them they weren’t allowed to speak to reporters.

As for the fans, they’re not exactly taking to the streets, real or virtual. As of Thursday morning, 6,084 people have signed Old Style’s online petition since it was launched in mid-September.

The Budweiser deal makes perfect sense. The St. Louis-based beer is a longtime sponsor of the Cubs and their TV broadcasts, including a 2006 naming rights for the bleachers, but this deal is thought to be one of the highest-paying marketing deals in baseball. A Major League Baseball executive told ESPN Chicago that the Cubs are perennially the top beer seller, in terms of volume, in baseball.

Still, a marketing deal doesn’t include pouring rights, Green said, noting the Cubs and their concessionaire Levy Restaurants “could be considering everything from Old Style to Revolution IPA” to complement the Budweiser products. Other brands of beer will be sold throughout at the stadium, as they are now.

McHugh said they realize Old Style could still have a place in the ballpark, but while the company pushes tradition as its reason for this marketing barrage, he admitted the goal is to keep their beer in vendors' hands.

“I think that’s the point,” McHugh said. “It’s very easy for Levy to make a decision to keep Old Style in Wrigley, but what does that mean? We hope the fans have the same experience they’ve always had. They can sit in the bleachers or in the seats and have hawkers walking around with Old Style. We hope Levy doesn’t put us in two stands at the far end of the concourse. It’s about maintaining the exact experience you have in Wrigley Field.”

McHugh said the Old Style brand would still be heavily marketed in Chicago if they lose Wrigley Field.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “Absolutely, we will reinvest much of that money in what we’re doing in Chicago. We’ll spread our wealth a little bit.”

Pesha, though, thought about another local beer that lost its foothold with a baseball team.

“Let me tell you a story,” he said. “At the White Sox, they used to sell Stroh’s beer. I’ll never forget the beer drivers who used to bring a truck and drop off the beer. When Stroh’s lost the White Sox, the beer guys told me the sales of Stroh’s dropped at stores and at taverns. They said they wish they could bring it back for free.”