On A Wing And A Player

During these times of economic challenges, airlines are not flying as high, or as often, as they once did. But one area is seeing increased bookings -- sports sponsorships.

The Air Transportation Association, which oversees the major domestic-based carriers, said that the number of flights and total seats being made available in the U.S. is projected during the fourth quarter of 2009 to be the lowest since the months following 9/11, when many airlines drastically cut flights. However, airlines are finding they can raise their profile and fill seats by signing marketing deals to become the official carrier of pro and college teams and high-profile sports events that have destinations on their core routes. Among the most active:

  • JetBlue, whose marketing deals include the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Boston Red Sox and Fenway Park, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Orlando Magic and the Boston Marathon.
  • American Airlines, which has aligned with the Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots and Gillette Stadium. The airline also has naming rights at American Airlines Center in Dallas and American Airlines Arena in Miami.
  • Delta, which is the official carrier of such teams as the New York Yankees, New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings.
  • Continental, whose sports deals include the Cleveland Browns and Indians, Houston Astros and Texans, New York Knicks, Giants and Rangers, the U.S. Tennis Open and the ING New York City Marathon.
  • United, whose current deal as official airline of the U.S. Olympic Committee includes the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Games in London. It also has naming rights at United Center in Chicago.
  • US Airways has deals with the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals. A unique conflict of interest: In Phoenix, the NBA's Suns play at US Airways Center, but the team's official airline is Southwest (which also is the official airline of the NBA).

"Airlines are some of the best all-around fits to be sponsors of teams on many levels as the product can completely integrate into the sponsorship," said Robert Tuchman, president of marketing and sponsorship firm TSE Sports & Entertainment, New York (a division of Premiere Corporate Events). "It offers instant credibility and a built-in core of customers to sell to. Every team travels and every team has legions of fans who will follow their team on the road from college to the pro ranks."

Multi-year deals can run between $8 million and $12 million over the course of the contract depending on length and the extent of marketing activation. American Airlines, for example, is activating its recently signed alliance with the Patriots through TV, radio, out-of-home, online and in-stadium signage, which in turn translates into more exposure when seen on TV.

Low-cost regional carrier AirTran, based in Orlando, is a prime example of an airline seeking to boost its profile to a national level. AirTran carries official status with the Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens, and includes as spokespersons NFL quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Matt Ryan, teenage tennis star Melanie Oudin and IndyCar driver Danica Patrick. Conversely, the Oakland Raiders recently signed a deal with AirAsia, a major low-fare airline in Asia with no U.S. routes "to serve and expand the franchise's global fan base."

Interestingly, teams are not required to, and many times don't, fly their official team airline. Instead, they share the cost of private jets with teams in their city, or sign less-costly charter contracts with other airlines or with charter companies such as Miami Air International and Dallas-based Paradigm Air Carriers to transport their players, equipment and scouts hundreds of thousands of miles annually.

(A new challenge: Aviation rules that went into effect in the U.S. and Canada during the summer now prevent charter carriers from making multiple stops during the course of a team road trip, which had been allowed for nearly a decade. Among major pro sports leagues, the NHL, which has franchises located across both countries, would be most affected by this.)

"The official airline deals are not for the players. What you are looking at in these types of partnerships are for the teams to offer rewards and incentives to their fans," said William Sutton, associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. "If, for example, a team offers its season-ticket holders a free companion ticket for a trip, that's a great deal for the fans, gets goodwill for the team and puts people into seats. A lot of the airlines and teams offer incentives like that."

Earlier this month, not long after JetBlue officially opened operations at JFK, the carrier signed a three-year deal to become official airline of the New York Jets. Initial efforts included a one-day Takeoff and Touchdown Sale with special $12 airfares in honor of the uniform number of Jets Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath. JetBlue had similar incentives when it opened routes to and from Boston and the Los Angeles area.

Even when the economy regains its strength and more people start to travel, the alliance between sports teams and carriers appears to be one that will keep flying. "It translates into actual dollars, which is most important for these airlines," said Tuchman.

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