Beer, Here: Merchandising of College Sports Leads to Team-Branded Ales

LAFAYETTE, La. — Matthew Tarver, then the trademark licensing manager at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, was kicking around marketing possibilities with a colleague one day when a light bulb clicked on.

One of them said: beer!

The other replied: why not?

Now, more than four years after stumbling on an idea that now seems so obvious, Ragin’ Cajuns Genuine Louisiana Ale and its younger sibling, Ragin’ Cajuns Genuine Louisiana Lager, have put the school at the forefront of a burgeoning movement, with more than 20 universities marketing their own brand of beer.

They come with names like Boiler Black (Purdue), Old Tuffy (North Carolina State), El Lobo Rojo (New Mexico) and Stampede (Colorado).

They also come a time when universities, as eager as ever to chase even modest new revenues, have relaxed restrictions on selling alcohol at sporting events as a way to combat declining college football attendance.

For schools like Louisiana-Lafayette — whose $32 million in athletics revenue last year was about one-fifth the total of Louisiana State, the state’s flagship university — trying to keep up means having to get creative finding new income and ways of promoting itself, particularly in a state that has endured severe cuts to public education funding during the last decade.

That means playing three football games on a Wednesday or Thursday during a five-week span for better broadcast slots; creating partnerships with local and regional TV stations to air games and a coach’s show; and putting up six billboards around the city directing people to the school’s sports complex, which is about a 15-minute drive from campus.

“You don’t see that at L.S.U.,” said Nico Yantko, the school’s deputy athletic director for external relations. “They don’t have to do those things. We constantly have to be in front of you.”

But condoning schools’ aggressive licensing, like the agreements that allow for university-stamped six packs, makes it harder for the N.C.A.A. to justify denying student-athletes from pursuing similar deals to cash in on their images, something the governing body said this week that it would consider.

Still, for a college located in the heart of Cajun country — where resourcefulness is considered a defining character trait — it seemed inevitable that once Louisiana-Lafayette began slapping its red fleur-de-lis logo on hamburger buns, coffee and wine, it would license what might be considered an essential oil in these parts — beer.

Though the Acadiana region is largely characterized among outsiders by its French roots, the African, Spanish, Native American and German influences are central to the primary cultural underpinnings of Cajun and Creole cultures: music and food. Several musical instruments trace their roots to France (fiddle), Germany (accordion), Africa (triangle) and Spain (guitar). And while gumbo is a quintessential regional dish, the name comes from a West African word for okra — one of the stew’s essential ingredients.

As for the beverage of choice?

“You’d think we’re French, so it would be wine, but beer was at almost every meal growing up,” said Karlos Knott, the president of the Louisiana Craft Brewers Guild. “Boiled crawfish, gumbo, raw oysters — it’s a natural pairing.”

Knott, 56, opened Bayou Teche Brewery in 2009 with his wife on the family farm in Arnaudville, a speck-on-the-map town about 20 miles north of Lafayette. At the time, it was the third craft brewery in the state. Now, he said, there are 37.

Early in the summer of 2015, Knott received a call from a local beer distributor saying that Louisiana-Lafayette was interested in branding its own beer and was looking for someone to make it. So Knott arranged four samples for Tarver and several others to taste. They settled unanimously on the safest choice — a light, Kolsch-style ale, which tastes smooth but is tricky to brew.

“I called a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy,” said Tarver, whose wife’s family knew Knott’s family. “That’s the Cajun phone book.”

In just two months, Ragin’ Cajuns Genuine Louisiana Ale was for sale — just in time to be on tap at the football team’s first home game. (The beer is not sold on campus, where school policy prohibits alcohol sales, and it is not advertised in student media. The distributor is also responsible for an alcohol awareness program for incoming freshmen.)

It was an immediate hit.

“The first two years, every month it was ‘We need more, we need more, we need more,’” said Knott, who needed an upgraded brew house and nine 60-barrel fermenting tanks to keep up with demand. He sends out two 18-wheelers a month loaded with bottles and kegs, accounting for about 30 percent of the beer he produces. “It’s leveled off in a really nice spot for us,” he added.

The Ragin’ Cajuns beers have generated $1.2 million in sales since 2015, of which Louisiana-Lafayette has taken in $140,000 — its standard 12 percent royalty fee, a school spokesperson said. The money goes to the university’s general fund, some of which is allocated to athletics.

Neighboring schools have paid attention. There are at least five other universities in Louisiana now marketing their own beer: Tulane, the University of New Orleans, L.S.U. and Nicholls State, as well as McNeese State, whose beer is also brewed by Bayou Teche. Southeastern Louisiana briefly licensed a beer, but it was discontinued.

In many ways, though, the success of Ragin’ Cajuns beer is difficult to replicate.

For starters, the name of the school is barely mentioned: It only appears on the bottom of a six-pack of bottles, where it is noted that some of the proceeds go to support academics, research and athletics at U.L. Lafayette. Instead, the emphasis is on the region, with a local brewer using local ingredients (rice for the ale comes from Crowley, honey for the lager is from Breaux Bridge) and the marketing cachet of the school’s unique nickname, the Ragin’ Cajuns.

This has helped keep it moving in bars and beer shops from Beaumont, Tex., to New Orleans.

“You put Cajun on anything and it sells in southwest Louisiana,” Blaine Broussard, the president of Nunu’s Markets, a small grocery chain in Louisiana, said while he was tailgating before Louisiana-Lafayette’s loss to Appalachian State last month.

It was difficult before that game to find anyone drinking Ragin’ Cajuns beers in the parking lot outside Cajun Field, something that several fans attributed to cost and the beer selling only in bottles and not in cans. But it did do brisk business in the stadium — and there seemed to be few fans who had not at least sampled it.

“I like it better because it’s brewed with our local water. It tastes like Southwest Louisiana,” said Mark Aymond, a mechanical engineer with an accent as richly textured as fresh boudin. “It might be a little more expensive, but it’s geared toward a connoisseur like myself.”