Emirates Airline is a major player in the global carrier industry and a big player in sports sponsorship and marketing. So it is significant when Emirates says that it will sign deals with sports organizations such as FIFA and the U.S. Tennis Association but will not sign deals with individual athletes. And much of that strategy has to do with Tiger Woods.
"That is, and has been, company policy," said Roger Duthie, head of global sponsorships for the Dubai-based airline. "It is a strategy we have researched very intensely and which we do not take lightly."
This is not intended to paint a broad stroke over all active and retired athletes, many of whom are comfortably entrenched in the world of sports marketing and endorsements. It is, however, a case study regarding the hurdles that companies such as Emirates face when deciding to put money into sports.
"We have had the opportunity to sign [individual] athletes to endorsement contracts, but have chosen not to do so," said Duthie.
Duthie said that airline executives were engaged in preliminary discussions with Tiger Woods' agent several years ago for a possible endorsement deal. "But then he had his fall from grace, so we re-focused our attention on teams and leagues."
Duthie added that Woods was and continues to be an Emirates passenger, in particular when he plays in the annual Omega Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Club, which he has won twice. Woods currently has a deal with NetJets, which owns and operates private aircraft.
"There are many athletes who love to fly Emirates, and you could see those [publicity] photos in newspapers," among them Woods and Novak Djokovic, said Duthie.
But Emirates is not flying solo here. Woods has been a poster athlete for players whose off-the-field indiscretions cost them not only endorsement dollars but respect and, in some cases, freedom.
Michael Vick (dogfighting) and Mike Tyson (rape) spent time in prison for their crimes. Kobe Bryant lost tens of millions in marketing deals when he was accused of sexual assault (which was settled out of court). There is money that has not come to Pete Rose because he has been banned from baseball and is not eligible for entry into the Hall of Fame due to his admitted gambling situation. And former top players such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens have been devalued in the marketplace due to their association with performance-enhancing drugs.
Emirates is not a newcomer to the world of sports sponsorships. The company began to form alliances back in 1987, just two years after its inception, in such sports as soccer, tennis, rugby, cricket, sailing and horse racing. In 2004, Emirates and Arsenal signed a 15-year deal estimated to be $157 million, including jersey-front sponsorship and naming rights to Arsenal’s home stadium, which at the time was the biggest club sponsorship in English football history. In 2006, Emirates became the first global airline sponsor of the FIFA World Cup in a deal valued at upward of $200 million that runs through 2014. In horse racing, Emirates is title sponsor of the $10 million Dubai World Cup.
This year, Emirates signed a seven-year deal, which industry analysts put at $100 million, to become title sponsor of the U.S. Tennis Open Series (the 10-tournament event that precedes the U.S. Tennis Open) and the official airline of the U.S. Open Grand Slam.
This gives the carrier access to some of the best, and most popular athletes, on the planet. But in TV commercials, print, Internet, social media and other marketing communications, Emirates will focus on the games and events themselves, but not specific players.
Via its new alliance with the USTA, Emirates is supporting its expansion in the U.S. in New York, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Although such stars as Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams will be featured in umbrella ads from the USTA and marketing partners as the U.S. Open in New York approaches (Aug. 27-Sept. 9), Emirates itself will not have alliances with any of them.
"Emirates supports sports and athletes and all of the positive things they stand for," said Duthie. "But when it comes to [signing endorsement deals with] athletes, there are too many factors involved. You just don't know what will happen."