Airline M&A Could Help Networks, But Not More Than Southwest

Mergers and acquisitions can be a boon to networks, generating a flood of advertising to introduce the “new, stronger, better company ready to serve you.” Networks missed out when AT&T failed to subsume T-Mobile, but could gain as Southwest Airlines melds AirTran into its operations.

As airlines move in and out of national TV – seemingly, just as they do bankruptcy -- Southwest has been a consistent massive spender on football. College, the NFL? Doesn’t matter. The Texas-based airline hopes the passion fans feel for the sport and their favorite teams rubs off on them.

Over the years, it’s offered up some great, organic creative from agency GSD&M, notably the “Must Be Football Season” campaign, which is worth a YouTube search.

So, adding some international and other routes courtesy of AirTran might encourage it to spend more as it paints the new planes it takes over with its red, blue and yellow mélange. United and Continental have recently combined, which could usher in a wave of spending -- as could a possible US Airways-American combination.

But, neither the new United or a new American would be expected to top Southwest – at least in TV sports. How committed is Southwest to football?

Among the top-50 sports advertisers in 2011, it finished ninth with $165.5 million. But, it finished second in sports as a percentage of total ad dollars at 68.7%, according to Nielsen data collected for Sports Business Journal (SBJ).

(Unofficially, Southwest was the leader, trailing only the NFL at 78.3%. The data is based on rate-card information and the NFL may get some free spots as part of its TV contracts, which could show up as paid.)

The only other marketer to top the 60% mark in percentage of dollars spent in sports was Anheuser-Busch at 65.7%. MillerCoors trailed A-B at 56.3%. Only one other, E-Trade, was above 40%.

A-B and E-Trade are Super Bowl advertisers. Southwest takes a pass, seemingly the only major football game where it doesn't make an appearance.

Last year marked more upward movement for Southwest on several fronts. With its $165.5 million sports outlay, it rose from 15th to 9th on the overall sports spending chart.

Further, it had the greatest percentage of growth among the top 20. No one came even close to its 26.3% increase. The next highest was Chevy with a 4.6% increase.

In fact, 16 of the top 20 sports advertisers in 2011 cut their spending. Overall, collectively among the top 50, there was a surprising 8.5% drop, according to SBJ.

In terms of the top 15 sports spenders, 14 of the 15 remained the same, though there was reshuffling among the incumbents. State Farm replaced Coke, which fell in part because 2011 was not an Olympic or World Cup year when Coke can ramp up spending.

Overall, in terms of sports dollars spent, A-B stayed at number two with its nearly $300 million, trailing Verizon ($345.4 million). Verizon supplanted AT&T’s wireless business in the top spot as its competitor fell to third with $296.9 million, according to the SBJ data.

Both Verizon and AT&T wireless allotted 22.7% of their total spending to sports.

Some trends to watch for in 2012? Whether GM, which reportedly wants rollbacks in its ad prices and will take a pass on the Super Bowl, increases sports spending. Whether a retrenching Best Buy drops out of the top 50 sports spenders. And, how much Coke rises with its planned Olympics campaign.

Alas, for networks looking for “merger” money, it doesn’t look as if AT&T or Verizon would be able to acquire Sprint thanks to government concerns. And having failed once, a DirecTV/Dish Network consolidation doesn’t seem in the offing.

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