Among the Chugs: How Phoenix Rising's Dollar Beer Night became a 13-0-0 phenomenon
*Editor's note: Phoenix continued their winning streak to make it 14-0-0 with a win over Sacramento Republic FC on Aug. 23.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Clay Meschke had seen the belt sit on a shelf at his local skate shop for a while.
It was like a fanny pack for beer, with six insulated holders across the front and snaps in the back. He knew he needed it, but for what? Though he wasn't sure, every time the 26-year-old went in, the belt was still there, untouched, unsold. Finally, one day he offered $10 for it. Sold.
"I kind of just kept it around for moments like this," Meschke said.
On Friday night, Meschke found a use for it, stocking it full of $1 Bud Lights at the Phoenix Rising's Dollar Beer Night, the popular promotion that has become a local legend not just because of the cheap beer but because of success that has followed.
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The Rising haven't lost in three years of Dollar Beer Night promotions, extending their record to 13-0-0 on Friday with a 4-2 win over Reno 1868 FC in a clash of the top two teams in the United Soccer League's Western Conference.
The Rising's win, which improved their hold on first place in the West, also extended two other streaks. It was their 14th consecutive win, which added to their league record, and increased their unbeaten streak at home to 15 games overall. And, in typical Dollar Beer Night fashion, it was done with a dramatic flare as they converted two penalty kicks and added a third goal from defender Mustapha Dumbuya all in a span of 20 minutes in the second half.
By then, most of the 7,036 in attendance were full of cheap beer.
Some 20,000 cans of Bud Light were sold Friday night, including four for Meschke and four to his friend, Tim Barron. About 12 minutes before kickoff at Casino Arizona Stadium in south Scottsdale, Meschke was walking outside the bleachers with his beer holster fully stocked and one can in his hand. That was Round 1, though it was too early for him to decide how many more beers would be in his future.
"Let's face it: dollar beer," Meschke said. "Everybody's kind of excited."
The Rising's Dollar Beer Nights have accomplished everything the franchise had hoped for when they were devised two years ago. Four minutes after the gates opened at 6 p.m. on Friday, the line at the largest beer stand closest to the entrance was already 16 people deep. At that point, temperatures were still 108 degrees and the sun was still more than an hour from setting. Though cheap, beer wasn't going to keep anyone hydrated. But it didn't matter. The flow of fans passing over single dollar bills in return for a 12-ounce can was constant. One mom used her can to cool down her young daughter, putting it on her forehead much to the little girl's satisfaction.
Fans had options, too. They could line up at that permanent beer stand, which smartly divided its lines into cash and charge. Or they could bombard the rolling beer carts, one of which was set up 45 steps in front of one stadium entrance to capitalize on the heat, the day of the week and the price. It worked. Fans made a beeline right to it, cash in hand. When that stand had to restock, it could barely make it back to its original position before getting stopped by thirsty supporters. Finally, cases were brought out to them so they could remain on the ground, those carts capable of holding eight 30 packs (or 240 beers) at a time.
At one point, there were three beer stands within a span of 50 feet.
The club's limit is four beers (48oz.) per purchase but no limits on purchases and most fans, at least early in the evening, carried one or two. But as the night wore on, more fans opted for convenience, buying three or four at a time. The trick, then, was how to carry them.
Seven minutes before kickoff, there were 17 people in line at the big stand. Inside the stadium, the Rising's official supporters' section at the south end was completely full by time the game started at 7:30 p.m., but not the other seats. The sections behind the benches were about a third and other sections across from them were about half-full. But that's become the norm on Dollar Beer Nights. Fans were streaming in, with lines at the entrances until the 27th minute.
As a heat wave -- yes, even Arizona has them -- engulfed Phoenix, the crowd Friday wasn't as large as it has been in the past but according to Phoenix winger Solomon Asante, it was every bit as mighty. Fans from multiple Phoenix groups, with names like Los Bandidos and the Red Fury, stood the entire game, most on the bleacher seating and sometimes two or three deep at the fence line. Despite the chaos, supporters were conscientious about the environment. Piles of cans laid together, ready to be picked up after the game, and bags of empty cans made it easy to recycle.
After Asante's second successful penalty to seal the Rising's 13th consecutive Dollar Beer Night win, red smoke bombs filled the air, floating across the field, thick enough to block out the lights.
"I only come to these games for Dollar Beer Night," said Sonya Spagnola, of Scottsdale.
It was September 2017, the NFL and college football were in full swing, temperatures in Arizona were still hovering around 100 degrees and Sam Doerr was trying to figure out how to get fans to show up at a midweek game in early October.
He was a few months into his job as the Rising's vice president of sales and marketing when he was sitting in the team's Scottsdale headquarters with his staff, comprised of mostly recent graduates from Arizona State University. The game Doerr was focused on was on a Wednesday night. Not ideal to get either group in the stands since it was a big youth soccer night or the casual fan, since it was in the middle of their work week.
Then he posed a question to his young coworkers: Is Arizona State in session? Of course ASU was in session -- it was September, after all -- but why did Doerr care? Its campus was about two miles from Casino Arizona Field. And Doerr had a thought: What do most college students like more than anything? Cheap beer.
Doerr knew what he needed to do.
Before moving to Arizona, Doerr worked for the Spurs Sports & Entertainment in San Antonio, Texas, which owned an American Hockey League team in addition to the NBA team. There, he had organized "dollar drink nights" that led to increased ticket sales and "a little bit of a different atmosphere." Doerr wanted to do the same in Phoenix, so he worked out the details with Bud Light and struck a deal with Lyft offering 20-30 percent discounts for fans at the games and giving the team "free credits" to use on fans in need of a ride home.
Other safeguards included and end to beer sales at the 80th minute plus a "Pub to Pitch" program in which shuttles pick up and drop off fans at local bars and the stadium. The free services averages 500 riders every Dollar Beer Night; the team also pays for additional law enforcement to make sure everyone stays safe at the games.
And so, Doerr had built the Rising's first Dollar Beer Night. All he had to was wait for them to come.
"We ran out [of beer] the first night," Doerr said. "We got a lot of grief for it, but we didn't expect it. It was a midweek game."
That night, the Rising sold about 5,000 Bud Lights just after halftime. To keep up with the demand, the team started selling Four Peaks, a local craft beer, for a dollar instead. "We didn't want to lose the fans or momentum," Doerr said. On night one of the run, October 4, 2017, the Rising beat the Tulsa Roughnecks FC, 4-3, in dramatic fashion in front of 5,681 fans -- almost 2,000 more than the previous midweek game. Six goals were scored in an 18-minute stretch in the first half alone.
Phoenix Rising midfielder Joey Calistri played for Tulsa back then and had three assists that night. In a weird twist of fate, Calistri, who didn't know the correlation between the match and the beer promo, almost single-handedly stopped the Rising's streak before it started. He scored what would have been the deciding goal in stoppage time but was offside.
"It was crazy," Calistri said of that first Dollar Beer Night game. "It was insane. People were hammered. You'd go to take a set piece and you got guys just screaming in your ear. It's awesome. And, obviously, now that it's our fans, it's even better because it's a huge advantage."
Said Doerr: "What played into our hands was the game was like it was drunk, too."
That game was a preview of what was to come. The Rising knew it was on to something but didn't quite know what. It took them until the end of last season to figure it out. When they looked back on Dollar Beer Nights in 2017 and 2018, they knew they were 9-0-0 but what stood out was the upswing in attendance. On Wednesday nights, the crowd never topped out above 5,939 and their final two Wednesday Dollar Beer Nights had crowds of 5,017 and 5,307. Friday nights, however, were quite different. Attendance on every Friday Dollar Beer Night in 2018 was more than 7,000.
Here's the catch: Capacity at Casino Arizona Stadium is 6,200 and any ticket sold beyond that is standing room only. The Rising's two highest-attended games were the playoff games last season, both of which fell on a Friday night. After looking at 2017 and 2018, the Rising knew there was only one thing to do. When it set the schedule for 2019, they put every Dollar Beer Night on a Friday.
"It's just kind of like folklore, almost," said Rising coach Rick Schantz.
The team has even made Dollar Beer Night merchandise. It wears its black Copper State-themed alternate jerseys on Friday nights, making the most of the "blackout" theme. Bud Light made a mockumentary about the promotion. "The Dan Patrick Show" has named the Dollar Beer Night shirts "best of the week" twice. At the last Dollar Beer Night, Bud Light sent the Bud Knight to enhance the fun.
The Rising sold between 18,000 and 20,000 beers at its July 19 Dollar Beer Night: about five times what it sells on any other night. Then there's the quality of soccer on display, too. Not only is the Rising 13-0-0 on Dollar Beer Night since 2017, but it has scored 44 goals and allowed only 11 with eight shutouts. Their average margin of victory is 2.58 goals.
"It's always exciting in the stadium, but Friday nights is a different level," Rising general manager Bobby Dulle said. "Anytime you can play in front of a very passionate, loud fan base like ours, you're going to have a home field advantage. Throw it on Dollar Beer Night and you even get more buzz in the stadium.
"Everyone just kind of maybe picks it up a notch or two."
The crowd gets goalkeeper Zac Lubin and some of his teammates buzzing on Friday nights quite literally. "I wouldn't be surprised if a bit rained on me," Lubin said.
Sometimes, it's directly poured on him and his teammates. After games, players walk around the fences high-fiving fans. In return, some fans try to pour beers into the players' mouths like the drinking game, waterfall. By the end of games, the supporters section smells like a "stale bar," Lubin said.
"[Our fans are] dancing and singing the whole game," he said. "You get that feeling of just like energy and they help us. Obviously, it shows when we're scoring so many goals and we're undefeated.
"I think other teams know coming into it, like, 'It's gonna be a battle tonight. We're going to have to battle the team but also like the crowd and fans.' When you're in front of that South End, man, you can't hear anything. So if you're the opposing goalkeeper, I can't even imagine. Like it's loud for me, but when they're shouting at you and talking smack to you the whole time, I can't imagine trying to organize your defenses. It's almost impossible."
There's also a practical benefit from the increase support and energy on Friday nights.
"We talk about it all the time," Schantz said. "When you look at the metrics of football and soccer, you're running 12 miles a game and some of these guys are doing upward of, you know, 1,500 sprint meters. When you're as tired as you can be, we always say, 'Imagine how tired the other team is.' Add the heat, but then add the fans on our side and that extra shot of adrenaline -- the fans just want that goal and they want you to win so badly. So, it's a massive advantage for us."
It's also helped keep the Rising relevant after Didier Drogba retired.
Drogba was a soccer legend when he arrived in Arizona for what proved to be the final stop in his 20-year playing career. Whenever the striker, who won multiple Premier League titles and the UEFA Champions League with English side Chelsea, did something notable on the field, Doerr said the social media impressions skyrocketed into the millions. When Drogba scored, Chelsea shared it.
"Dollar Beer Night has filled the void for Didier," Doerr added.
Before a recent game, Schantz walked into the locker room with an open Bud Light in his jacket pocket. With every step, beer spilled out and soaked his jacket. He pulled it out during his speech in dramatic fashion and asked his team what that can meant to them.
"Immortality," one player yelled out.
"We all kind of laughed that, on Dollar Beer Night, we're immortal," Schantz said. "We can't lose."