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How (not) to promote cask ale and football

By Annabel Smith, Cask Marque’s National Account & Training Manager.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m a ‘fair weather’ football fan. By that, I mean I don’t know a lot about football, I can take it or leave it, but if a big match is on in the pub, I’ll usually get drawn in, and cheer with all the other drinkers when a goal is scored (albeit a milli second behind everyone else cos I don’t know who the drinkers are supporting. Nothing worse than punching the air in victory only to find every other person staring at you with hate in their eyes).

With this summer’s World Cup looming, I thought I’d share with you a cautionary tale about cask ale and football. Back in 1998 I was running a pub in Leeds city centre. It was a big cask ale pub and attracted a really diverse crowd of drinkers – old and young, professionals and labourers, students and office workers. The main pull was the six different ales I always had on the bar. That year, the World Cup was held in France. Every pub in Leeds (and indeed the rest of the country) was pulling out all the stops to attract drinkers to their pubs for the big matches – reserved seating, promotional offers, table service, anything you could think of to pull the punters in. I sat down with my staff and we came up with, what we thought, was a unique idea. And we made a massive assumption. We assumed that cask ale drinkers weren’t really into football or the World Cup, so we’d be a ‘football free zone’ for the duration of the tournament. We would be an oasis of calm in a sea of frenzy. Our cask ale drinkers could enjoy their pint in peace.

We put A boards on the pavement outside the pub proclaiming our mission. We distributed leaflets all over town. We told all our customers what we had decided to do. Hell, we even had ITN ask if they could come and interview me in the pub about this brilliant notion. Alarm bells should have started ringing when ITN stuck the feature at the end of the news that night, usually the spot where they say “And finally, here’s a crazy story for you all to have a chuckle at”.

The World Cup started, and we smugly congratulated ourselves on being ‘different’ to every pub in town. Our smiles started becoming slightly more strained when we could hear the cheers and whistles coming up the street from every other bar, whilst we watched tumbleweed drift across the pub. It was an utter disaster; staff morale plummeted, takings in the till fell, and I had a cellar full of cask ale coming dangerously close to its sell by date.

What we had failed to recognise was the sociability of the World Cup. Even if you’re not a football fanatic, the World Cup creates a unique opportunity for pubs. It draws people together, regardless of what team they usually support. It creates highs and lows, and a bond for everyone in that pub, regardless of what they drink. Cask ale drinkers are a sociable bunch, and they go to the pub not only for the beer, but also for the atmosphere and convivial nature they experience. We assumed (okay, I assumed) that cask ale drinkers would reject the World Cup experience in favour of a range of beers, not realising that they may feel they were missing out on something special. I assumed there were two separate entities: the cask ale drinker and the football fans. I was totally wrong, there is a natural synergy between the sociability of the two. Cask ale drinkers don’t all want to nurse their pint in a quiet corner whilst everyone else around them is having fun.

So what did I do? I reneged on my initial decision, dragged the television down from my flat (keep up, this is before the days of multiple plasma screens) and created a hub of excitement in the tap room. Yes, I faced a barrage of derogatory comments from the rest of the licensees in Leeds who had benefited so brilliantly from the World Cup opportunity. But sometimes it’s best to hold your hand up and admit “I was wrong”.

The moral of this story is, don’t ever stereotype cask ale drinkers into a box. They’re beer drinkers at the end of the day and beer – whatever type of beer – is the glue that holds our pubs together. To this day, I get people in the village where I live saying “Do you remember when you were on News at Ten talking about a football free zone during the World Cup?” and I cringe. My only consolation was that my Mum was very proud of me being on the national news.