Diageo becomes first spirits company to sign sponsorship deal with NFL


Diageo owned whiskies on a bar at their headquarters in Edinburgh where Diageo announced a £150 million investment over three years to transform its scotch whisky visitor experiences.

Andew Milligan | PA Images | Getty Images

Smirnoff Vodka owner Diageo has signed a multiyear deal with the NFL to become the league’s first spirits sponsor.

While the National Football League has long had relationships with beer brands like Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Bud Light, it has been slower to embrace spirits. Until 2017, distillers couldn’t even advertise during games. An advertising campaign on drinking responsibly from Diageo’s Crown Royal whisky was the first spirits commercial to air during an NFL game after the ban was lifted.

“What they’ve done from a responsibility standpoint to us, really stood head and shoulders above other spirit companies in the marketplace,” said Nana-Yaw Asamoah, vice president of business development and sponsorship for the NFL. “And that goes for their marketing standards, which hold themselves to a higher standard than the rest of the market, and kind of used it to inform our policies as we looked to advertising restrictions and opening up spirits in-game advertising in 2017.”

Since the repeal of Prohibition, the spirits industry has regulated its own advertising and marketing with voluntary guidelines for distillers. For example, the code requires that spirits producers advertise only on TV programs where at least 71.6% of the audience is at least 21 years old. Spirits’ higher alcohol content carries a taboo that separates it from beer and wine in the eyes of some watchdogs, who want even stricter standards for hard liquor, citing concerns about underage consumers viewing those ads.

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The spirits industry’s advertising spending fell last year but is up in 2021. According to Kantar Media, it rose 20% in the first quarter of 2021 from a year earlier.

Diageo North America Chief Marketing Officer Ed Pilkington said in an interview that the company will continue to focus on responsible drinking as part of its partnership with the NFL.

Diageo was also the first industry sponsor of NASCAR, which lifted its ban on spirits partnerships in 2004. Asamoah said the NFL could have chosen a spirits sponsor two years earlier but decided to wait.

“We always take the approach that we don’t have to be first, but we want to make sure to get it right,” he said. “After looking at other leagues and how they approached the spirits base and how we started in 2017 — in 2019 we allowed our teams to start having relationships with spirits brands, 20 of which have a spirits partner, so we really felt like this was a good time.”

Financial terms and the specific length of the deal between Diageo and the NFL were not disclosed in Wednesday’s announcement. It will include all of Diageo’s spirits portfolio, although the company plans to focus primarily on the Smirnoff, Crown Royal and Captain Morgan Spiced Rum brands at the start. Its Guinness beer is not part of the deal.

Diageo also got the international rights. The NFL has been trying to expand its fanbase overseas with several international games every season in London and Mexico City. For the upcoming season, the league is planning to hold two games in London.

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“We’re excited for that as well, especially for our international brands like Captain and Smirnoff, which are big brands in the U.K. and that links over there as well,” Pilkington said.

In addition to displaying the brands’ logos and TV advertisements to the NFL’s millions of fans, Diageo also has plans to display its partnership with the football league in liquor stores and host responsible drinking programs. The company is also sponsoring the NFL’s annual Fan of the Year contest this year.

“We’ll make sure to do it in a really holistic way,” Pilkington said.

Prior to the sponsorship, Diageo already had partnerships with 12 NFL teams and stadiums. Pilkington said the company is in talks to add more teams to that roster.



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