The Bud Bowl: A Definitive History
On the subject of the greatest football dynasties of all-time, the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, 1980s San Francisco 49ers, 1990s Dallas Cowboys and 2000s New England Patriots likely all come to mind. You would be remiss, however, if you failed to mention a less heralded and, uh, less human team that dominated its competition in, quite frankly, unbelievable fashion: Budweiser.
From 1989-1997, the self-anointed "King of Beers" dominated Anheuser-Busch's Bud Bowl, the yearly clash between animated bottles of Bud and Bud Light that was featured in a series of commercials during the Super Bowl. The advertising campaign, which persists today in the form of Bud Bowl-themed packaging and promotional events, remains one of the most popular ever.
The Bud Bowl Architect
Grant Pace wrote the six original Bud Bowl ads that appeared in 1989 while working at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. Pace said he developed the ads under the assumption that Bud Bowl would be a one-year phenomenon, but Anheuser-Busch representatives liked the prototype so much that Pace actually changed the original ending to leave open the possibility for a sequel. We interviewed Pace this week—here's a transcript.
More Exciting Than The Actual Super Bowl
The first spots were an instant hit with viewers, as reflected by an amazing 17% surge in January beer sales. This guaranteed a grudge match the following year. As the cost of air time, production and other expenses grew from $5 million in 1989 to $8 million in 1991, so too did sales and Bud Bowl's popularity. Inflatable helmets and other related paraphernalia dominated liquor store and supermarket displays, while fans and sports columnists opined that the annual "Battle of the Bottles" was more exciting than the actual Super Bowl. (Considering that the average margin of victory in Bud Bowl history was less than three points, that notion held more than a little bit of truth.)
By 1994, when Bud announced a new advertising deal with DDB Needham Worldwide, it was clear that the Bud Bowl idea as Pace and his colleagues had originally conceived it was nearly tapped out. The game took a one-year hiatus in 1996 before making an unsuccessful comeback attempt in 1997. The buildup to Bud Bowl 8 featured a sweepstakes, inviting fans to go online and vote for their all-time favorite Bud Bowl players and moments. Though I was only 13, I managed to score an official football.
Television spots for the Bud Bowl were abandoned for good in 1998, as Anheuser-Busch brought back the Budweiser frogs campaign, which debuted two years earlier.
Today, the Bud Bowl's legacy endures in stores [photo courtesy of MauryStory]...
...and even in Glendale, Arizona, the site of Super Bowl XLII. Snoop Dogg and Kid Rock will headline the Block Party at
Bud Bowl 2008, while the Budweiser Clydesdales will also make an appearance. Similar events have been held in other Super Bowl host cities in recent years, including a 2006 shindig at Detroit's Tiger Stadium. But while the modern Bud Bowl remains a marketing success, it hardly compares to the stop-action awesomeness that fans came to know and love in the events formative years. To watch every Bud Bowl commercial in its entirety, along with thousands of other commercials, I highly recommend the nominal one-week membership to commercial-archive.com. The fine folks behind that site have granted us permission to use their screenshots.
Continue reading for a look back at Bud Bowls I-VIII...
Bud Bowl I
January 22, 1989: Budweiser 27, Bud Light 24
Narrated by Bob Costas and Paul Maguire, the game that started it all unfolded over six spots during Super Bowl XXIII and proved almost as riveting as the Joe Montana-led San Francisco 49ers' 20-16 comeback win over the Cincinnati Bengals. The inaugural Bud Bowl was billed as a thunder and lightning showdown between two beers with contrasting styles. Bud, which boasted the vaunted "Beechwood Backs," favored a rushing attack, while Bud Light's pass first, ask questions later attack was led by a QB with Tom Brady-like numbers (49 touchdowns, 8 interceptions).
The back-and-forth game featured all sorts of excitement. Bud Light executed a flea-flicker to perfection, while Bud's "Appliance of Defiance," the Freezer, gave Bud Light defenders headaches all night. With two seconds remaining and the game tied at 24, Budsky, Bud's seven-ounce "nip" bottle placekicker, wobbled onto the field to attempt a 42-yard field goal. The kick bounced off the crossbar and left upright before falling through, sending the boozed-up crowd of Bud beer cans into a tizzy, or fizzy as it were.
Watch Bud Bowl I at commercial-archive.com.
Bud Bowl II
January 28, 1990: Budweiser 36, Bud Light 34
The following year proved no better for the bottles in blue. Bud, no doubt fired up by an emotional pre-game speech that concluded with the line, "You guys are the king, now let's go turn out their lights," earned its second consecutive dramatic win in the series. This one was wrought with controversy.
In snowy conditions at scale-sized Busch Stadium, Budweiser overcame a gritty performance by Bud Light quarterback Budway Joe and scored the winning touchdown as time expired when an offensive player advanced a fumble, which is illegal by NFL rules. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Anheuser-Busch received hundreds of telephone calls about the play over the course of the next week, prompting the St. Louis-based brewery to respond thusly:
"In the National Football League, of course, the offensive team cannot advance a fumble in the final two minutes of a game unless the ball is recovered by the same player who fumbled it. However, no such rule exists in the BFL (Budweiser Football League)."
I was unable to get my hands on a copy of the official BFL rulebook, but there are some other subtle hints that the Bud Bowl wasn't governed by NFL rules. Like, for instance, the fact that its participants didn't have any hands.
Watch Bud Bowl II at commercial-archive.com.
Bud Bowl 3
January 27, 1991: Bud Light 23, Budweiser 21
By the time the foam settled in one of two Bud Bowls to shun the use of Roman numerals (Bud Bowl 8 was the other), there was a new ruler of the cooler. Don Meredith and Keith Jackson called the action, while Chris Berman handled studio duties for the game. Bud Light scored first, using a bottle opener as a spear to clear a path to the end zone.
Filling in for the injured Budway Joe, top draft pick Bud Dry staked Bud Light to a fourth quarter lead, but a Longneck caught a touchdown pass with 3 seconds remaining, giving Bud a 21-17 edge and setting up the most memorable finish in Bud Bowl history.
In a parody of "The Play" at the end of Cal's victory over Stanford in the 1982 Big Game, Bud Light used multiple laterals to weave its way up the field and through the Bud band, which had wandered onto the field prematurely to celebrate what they thought was a sure third straight title. Jackson bellowed, "The band is on the field!" seconds before a Bud Light bottle sporting a tuba reached the end zone. Bud fans have lamented the fluke loss to this day, but like their Stanford brethren, can find solace in their team's superior all-time record against its rival.
Watch Bud Bowl 3 at Retrojunk.
Bud Bowl IV
January 26, 1992: Budweiser 27, Bud Light 24
By previous Bud Bowl standards, this was one to forget. Rather than showing bottles run and throw footballs across a field for a fourth straight year, Chris Berman narrated one fan's quest to retrieve a Bud Bowl sweepstakes ticket that his girlfriend had mistakenly thrown away. (Fans had a chance to win up to a million dollars if the final score of the Bud Bowl matched the score on their game card were a staple of the later Bud Bowls.)
After a predictably disastrous turn of events that involved a trashcan, a police car and a pigeon, the pitiful hero managed to retrieve his ticket and arrived home just in time to catch the final score of the Bud Bowl. Lo and behold, he was a winner! After he put the ticket down to celebrate with an ice cold Budweiser and began recounting his ridiculous story to some friends, the shot panned to an adorable dog that had wandered into the room. You can guess what happened next.
Watch Bud Bowl IV at commercial-archive.com.
Bud Bowl V
January 31, 1993: Budweiser 35, Bud Light 31
General Hospital heartthrob Corbin Bernsen led Bud Light into Bud Bowl V, while the Bud team and head coach Joe Namath arrived in the Budweiser blimp just minutes before kickoff. Ahmad Rashad and former MTV VJ Karen "Duff" Duffy provided quarter-by-quarter updates of the game, which featured some of the most absurd characters and events in the series' history.
Bud answered a touchdown reception by Bud "Neon" Light with a kickoff return for a touchdown by Namath's secret weapon, the Budweiser Rocket. After Bud built a 35-7 lead, Rashad asked a stone-faced Bernsen, "Coach, is there light at the end of the tunnel?" Help arrived in the form of a runaway Bud Light beer truck, which transformed into the Aluminator, an unstoppable offensive weapon.
Trailing 35-31, there was no question who would get the ball for Bud Light on the final play of the game. As the Aluminator barreled through would-be Bud tacklers, an improbable, come-from-behind Bud Light victory seemed inevitable. Instead, a conniving Namath signaled to the Budweiser blimp above. A mechanized claw descended from the blimp and snatched the Aluminator into the air, which led to a fumble that Bud recovered to preserve the win.
After the game, Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Bud Bowl V had big-league special effects and bold commentary by MTV's Duff, looking buff in black, but this never-ending battle of the bottles has become a real clinker."
Watch Bud Bowl V at commercial-archive.com.
Bud Bowl VI
January 30, 1994: Bud Light 20, Budweiser 14
With Marv Albert in the Bud Bowl studio and Mike Ditka and Bum Phillips as the head coaches of Bud and Bud Light, respectively, this game had the makings of a classic. It wasn't. Bud Light took an early lead on a "Naked Reverse" after its quarterback shed his label at the line of scrimmage. Bud countered with a kickoff return for a touchdown by the Basher, a 24-ounce can of aluminum dominance, who was penalized for excessive celebration and then ejected for cursing at the referee.
A windstorm blew into the stadium early in the second half, making things difficult for both offenses. The situation at a nearby bar, where patrons were nearly out of Budweiser, was more serious. Several Bud blimps combined forces to physically lift the stadium into the cozy confines of the bar, leading Albert to deadpan, "I don't know where this game is headed, but this is what I call a beer run!" Predictably, Bud Light scored the winning touchdown after a man in the bar grabbed a Bud defender from the playing field and proceeded to quench his thirst.
"My biggest problem with the whole Bud Bowl thing is that they never really have any good teams playing," syndicated sports humor columnist Norman Chad once wrote. "I mean, if the Anheuser-Busch bigwigs had any brass at all, they'd get, say, Heineken and Samuel Adams every once in a while. Heck, Bud Lite's (sic) like Notre Dame "“ it doesn't matter what their record is, they're bowl-bound." The Bud Light-Notre Dame comparisons don't end there. Like the Fighting Irish, Bud Light's last bowl win came in 1994.
Bud Bowl VII
January 29, 1995: Budweiser 26, Bud Light 24
Anheuser-Busch probably should've sent its bottles to the recycling plant after Bud Bowl VI. Instead, they gave us 60 seconds of Iggy, Biff, and Frank, castaways who watched Bud Bowl VII unfold from a desert island. With Bud trailing late in the game, Iggy was transported off the island and into the game, where he caught a pass and began rumbling toward the end zone. Eighty yards later, following a dream-like montage of press clippings and cereal boxes commemorating his newfound celebrity, Iggy gave Bud its fifth Bud Bowl win.
Watch Bud Bowl VII at commercial-archive.com.
Bud Bowl 8
January 26, 1997
After a one-year hiatus, Bud Bowl VIII returned with another single, forgettable spot. Howie Long and Ronnie Lott provided coverage, holding Fox Sports microphones no less, from a bar in the Louisana bayou. After a fan stole his microphone and opened a fridge to reveal the Bud Bowl in action, Lott threw him out of a bar window and into a swamp. Lott proceeded to reveal the final score before the spot ended with a familiar refrain from the fan, who was sharing space in the swamp with an alligator: "I love you, man."
How does the Bud Bowl stack up in your hierarchy of greatest Super Bowl commercials? Share your thoughts below, and check out the transcript of Scott's e-mail exchange with Bud Bowl writer Grant Pace.