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European football’s top teams have been turning to private airlines companies as potential source of sponsorship income. In recent years there has been several high-profile sponsorship agreements between football clubs and airlines, most notable examples include Arsenal/Emirates, Manchester City/Etihad and Barcelona/Qatar Airways.
However, it is unlikely that clubs are agreeing these deals solely based on their monetary incentives, as there are a multitude of other industries that could potentially be more lucrative to clubs. Pre-season tours for the Europeans elite have become more and more extravagant and have reached out to wider audiences as clubs seek expand their global brand. For English team’s pre-season tours used to go as far as the Netherlands, Belgium and France, now it has become common for clubs to travel to different continents to play local teams or even to face other Premier League clubs.
When it comes to top level sport all the finest details are analysed and these are factored into decision making in order to ensure that players are performing at their optimum level; this may include choosing suitable flying times in order to not only fit in with the team’s schedule but also to ensure that the players have efficient time to recover, having a commercial airline sponsor should mean that clubs have better flexibility when deciding a flight time. Secondly, club nutritionists can work in conjunction with the airline to ensure that the food on the plane is tailored to the varied special diet requirements each player has. Lastly, during World Cup or Euro tournament years it is common or clubs to allow players extra summer break in order to recover, clubs with an airline sponsor have the ability to charter private jets for those players to join pre-season training when their break is finished. So, there are multiple advantages to joining forces with an airline, the aim of this report is to analyse all the benefits of having an airline sponsors and determining whether this trend will last, through the use of a case study approach. Looking at different size teams and how they are utilising their airline sponsors/partners.
When analysing airline sponsorship in football it difficult to ignore Qatar Airways and the way they have entered the football market. From the point of view of the airline company an affiliation with Europe's elite clubs can be highly beneficial. In 2011 they made a strong move into football by becoming the shirt sponsor of one of the biggest football brands in the world, Barcelona. In 2014 they replaced Turkish Airlines as Barcelona’s official airline partner; Barcelona had been receiving €9m annually from the Turkish company, it was reported that the Qatar deal was worth €96m for a three-year period (Conn, 2013 and Marsden, 2017).
However, in 2017 Barcelona broke off their deal with Qatar Airways and refused to continue negotiation over a new deal. Since then the airline has gone on to agree a multi-year partnership with AS Roma, a deal that is the biggest in AS Roma history and Qatar Airways have become their main global partner. The airline further strengthens their commitment to sports by agreeing to become an official partner and the official airline of FIFA, this deal includes the FIFA Confederations Cup 2017, the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, the FIFA Club World Cup, the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 and the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar. Since the Roma deal Qatar Airways has acquired a 49% state in the parent company of Air Italy and has increased their commercial flights flying into and out of Italy, this is prime example of the motives behind the airline’s investment into European countries and their sports teams.
Additionally, in 2018 Qatar Airways announced a partnership with Bayern Munich to become their new airline partner and official sleeve sponsor until the end of the 2022/23 season. Whilst the official value of the deal is not common knowledge, it is reported that the Qatar Airways deal is worth more than Bayern’s previous deal with Hamad International Airport valued at $12.3 million. Bayern Munich’s marketing director Andreas Jung stated that the rationale behind this deal was develop joint strategies with Qatar Airways in order to help them both achieve internationalisation. Successful entry into a new continent will increase revenues, positively grow the brand across continents and help increase market share for both Qatar Airways and the clubs they are associated with.
Premier League clubs have proven over the years that they have the ability to leverage highly lucrative sponsorship deals from a variety of different industries, in recent years airlines have become more common. Quick research shows that 6 out of the 20 clubs competing currently in the Premier League have an official airline sponsor. Quick analyse shows that 4 out of the 6 clubs with airline sponsors are considered to be in the top 6 biggest teams in the Premier League, is this an indication that only the biggest teams either have the ability to agree a deal with an airline or have the need and want for an airline sponsor? The following section will look to analyse the past, present and potential future airline agreements.
It can be argued that the biggest airline deal within the Premier League is Etihad and Manchester City, because not only are they their official airline partner but they are also the stadium sponsor and the shirt sponsor. When this deal was signed in 2011 it became the largest deal of its kind in sport, City were set to bank £400million in a 10-year agreement.
To put the size of this deal into context, the deal Arsenal struck in 2004 with rival airline company Emirates to become their shirt and stadium sponsor was reportedly valued at £90 million over 15 years. Recently however, Arsenal have managed to agree a new deal with Emirates that is valued at £200 million until 2024, this puts Arsenal joint second with Chelsea in regard to value of shirt sponsor. These 2 deals are different to the other 4 airline deals in the league as they cover more areas of the club than just an airline sponsor, Manchester United’s deal with Aeroflot and Liverpool’s deal with Malaysia Airlines for an example are solely an airline sponsor/partner and does not cover shirt or stadium sponsorship.
Whilst a global airline partnership deal can be beneficial in terms of monetary gain for Liverpool and United, there is also opportunities to reach out to a wider audience. Liverpool for example are said to have over 100 million followers in south east Asia and 40 million China alone, which happens to be Malaysia Airlines key markets.
Liverpool have stated that the aim of this partnership is to “bring Anfield closer” to their fan base in that part of the world, a fanbase that was grown from two pre-season tours of Malaysia in 2011 and 2015. This relates back to a previous point made earlier regarding pre-season tours and how airline partnerships can be used to enhance potential growth.
The Aeroflot/Manchester United deal was signed in 2013 and was expected to last for five years, in 2017 this deal was extended for another five years. This partnership is United’s first official commercial venture into Russia, where it is reported that they have 18 million followers. Aeroflot state that one of their benefits to United is their ability to provide “strategic travel advice” in regard to pre-season tours and European cup games. However, it can be strongly argued that the real benefits to United are the boast in club finances through the use of entering an emerging market that they had previously have not identified. This deal provides Manchester United the potential to grow their already existing large fan base and revenues.
When seeking to answer the question posed in the introduction to this section it is important to look at teams outside of the top six and what airline deals they have, both West Ham and Leicester have recently agreed airline partner/sponsor deals. It can be argued that the motivation behind the deal Leicester agreed was backed by their Asian owners and was largely down to their knowledge and contacts with Asian companies. West Ham, however may have a different motivation for their deal.
West Ham are a team on the up, they recently moved into a new 60,000 seater stadium and they have just spent over £100 million in the pre-season transfer window. It could be argued that their deal with Eva Air, a Taiwanese based airline, is an attempt to build their global fan base, similar to what Liverpool are trying to do with Malaysia Airlines. The difference with Liverpool and West Ham is that Liverpool are trying to maximise the potential of an already existing fan base and West Ham are trying to create one.
Eva Air services reach out to over 60 international destinations in all of the major continents, if utilised effectively this partnership has the potential to become a strong tool for West Ham to grow their fan base and their global brand. Quotes coming out of West Ham seem to indicate that this is the case; When announcing the deal Vice-Chairman Karen Brady outlined West Ham’s excitement about the benefits this deal can bring but specifically noted the potential to “…grow and develop our corporate identify on a global scale” through the use of collaborative fan engagement activities. This example further strengths the notion that airline deals, of this type, are being utilised as a brand strengthening tool as opposed to being solely being for monetary gain. Whilst it could be argued that all sponsorship deals from any industry are similar to this, where airline deals can differ is their potential to be global and provide that sense of global fans being closer to their favourite team.
Money is always on the mind of football clubs and their executives and they are always looking to develop new revenue streams from different industries, airline sponsorship is no different. All sponsorship deals provide monetary gain to both parties involved, therefore it would be pointless to just conclude that airline deals are solely influenced by how much the contract is worth.
From the examples above it can be concluded that many top clubs feel that as the game continues to become more global they have to act in order to fully maximise their potential gains from this, including growing fan base, increasing global image/brand and more efficiency when traveling. Since the introduction of the Premier League in 1992 the process of internationalisation has been utilised by many of the top clubs, it can be argued that by aligning themselves with an airline company clubs are further increasing the internationalisation process.
When seeking to develop a theory in regard to the future direction of airline sponsorship an important example to look at is Arsenal and Emirates. In just over 10 years the value of that deal has almost tripled and has become one of the biggest in Europe. Also, if the notion behind the West Ham/Eva Air deal becomes reality then it is rational to believe that more sponsorship deals of this kind will be agreed with clubs the same level as West Ham. From this it can be expected that the amount of airline sponsorship deals is likely to increase as the years go by.
This article was written by Connor Eade, of SBI's Marketing & Research team. For more information you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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