When Major League Baseball announced in April that it was moving its 91st All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver in protest of Georgia’s new controversial voting law, Colorado’s cannabis industry saw an opportunity.
“It was great for a number of reasons, not to mention the fact that we don’t suppress voters in Colorado,” said Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer at Boulder, Colorado-based edibles company Wana Brands.
“But when I heard that, I was like, ‘All right, we need to do something, right?’”
The company had already planned what Wana executives internally were calling the Summer of Quick – a branded van road trip to visit dispensaries across the state to host mocktail happy hours with budtenders to promote the company’s fast-acting Wana Quick gummy edibles.
For the leadup to Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic, Hodas and his team decided to expand on the happy hour concept and install a branded home base blocks from Denver’s Coors Field in a vacant storefront.
There, Wana will host educational talks by staff, appreciation breakfasts for local budtenders and sales chats.
A Wana-branded pedicab will also be on the streets, transporting baseball fans to and from the game and nearby events.
Other Colorado cannabis companies also plan to capitalize on the game in their own ways, ranging from a Willy Wonka-inspired giveaway to special events and sales.
The sales and marketing blitz will no doubt serve as a model for how other marijuana and hemp companies across the nations can cash in on major sporting events – even though professional sports have not endorsed marijuana.
An All-Star first
This year’s matchup between the American and National Leagues will mark the first time the All-Star Game has been hosted by a state with a legal recreational marijuana market.
Attitudes and policies in professional sports have become friendlier toward cannabis in recent years.
In late 2019, Major League Baseball (MLB) announced it was removing marijuana and other “natural cannabinoids” from its list of banned substances.
Also, a number of former professional baseball players have embraced cannabis as their preferred anti-inflammatory, pain relief or anti-anxiety medication.
Former All-Star pitcher David Wells – who played 21 seasons, mostly for the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees – is a vocal endorser of CBD.
And, in February, former All-Star Andruw Jones launched Fytiko Farms, a Georgia-based hemp company that plans to provide low-THC oil under the state’s limited medical cannabis program.
But that doesn’t mean Major League Baseball is exactly rolling out a red carpet (or celebratory joints) to welcome the cannabis industry or that it’s easy to execute a compliant cannabis promotion as part of the game.
When Colorado-based grower Veritas Fine Cannabis first started planning its All-Star promotion, for example, the company’s head of marketing and sales, Jon Spadafora, initially imagined a special commemorative can filled with the company’s favorite flower strains.
All buyers could sample a few strains while also being entered for a chance to attend the game.
But because of regulatory issues, that concept had to be adjusted to three 1-gram joints and a rally towel.
Additionally, sales from the promo were delayed by a few days because Metrc, Colorado’s seed-to-sale tracking system, was down. So it’s not yet clear if the promotion was successful.
But there will definitely be a winner.
Inspired by Willy Wonka’s golden ticket in the classic children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” every buyer will receive a code they can register online. The morning of the game, one lucky code-holder will be selected and given two free tickets to attend.
“There’s not necessarily a golden ticket per se, although we’ve talked about doing that a few different times,” Spadafora said.
“Our concern always comes back to what happens if that’s the one that somehow gets buried on a shelf somewhere.”
Social equity focus
Denver-area dispensary chain Lightshade decided to focus its All-Star event on equity, diversity and inclusion.
On Sunday, the company planned to collaborate with organizations such as Black Owls Lifestyle Group and the MLB-sponsored Black Love Mural Festival to host 50 VIPs from Black-owned and -operated marijuana companies to network, tour their facilities and kick back with food, champagne and cannabis.
“I think that they’re expecting 150,000 people to come to the Denver metro area during the All-Star Game from out-of-state,” said Lisa Gee, Lightshade’s vice president of marketing and corporate social responsibility.
“The collaboration that (Black Owls) have going on is really looking at the community of people of color in the city of Denver and the contributions to the greatness of the city.”
A shift in attitude
The MLB All-Star Game is also an opportunity to marvel at how much has changed when it comes to mainstream attitudes, including professional sports’, toward cannabis.
Former baseball player and wellness and cannabis entrepreneur Steve Bumbry has intimately witnessed that shift.
His dad, Al Bumbry, played for 13 years in the major leagues with the Baltimore Orioles and San Diego Padres, and Steve was an Orioles prospect.
But after experiencing the devastating impacts of a fourth concussion playing ball, he traded the prescription opiates, muscle relaxants and injections he was prescribed for cannabis products.
It was so effective, he eventually launched Bee Well and Bee Balanced Therapies, Maryland-based wellness companies that include cannabis and are named after his dad’s nickname, Bee.
His dad and his former player friends are now big supporters and endorse products such as CBD topical ointments.
Bumbry said, as a former player, he’s thrilled to see policies shift to support the health of athletes.
But he decided not to attend this year’s game or try to use it as a marketing opportunity given that Major League Baseball has yet to embrace cannabis, and it could be a costly risk.
“Maybe once the MLB is a little bit more vocal about its support of cannabis, people will recognize our story and that (Bee) is an athlete-founded brand,” he said.
For those who are participating in All-Star festivities this year, they also would like to feel more welcome and for cannabis brands to be viewed the same as any other brand at a big sports event.
“I guarantee you,” Hodas said, “if you were to go through the list of the top 100 companies in Colorado, they’re probably all doing some type of event sponsoring something around the All-Star Game.”
Wana’s presence at the game is to send the message that cannabis might be novel, but it doesn’t have to be treated differently.
“That’s a big part of why we’re doing it,” he said. “This is to say that we are a brand and a company just like anybody else.”