MIAMI — If there ever was a company that genuinely believes in “sport” as the universal language, Emirates (EK) would be at the top of the list.
This past February, the Dubai-based airline renewed its partnership with Arsenal Football Club, estimated to be worth €226 million over the life of the contract and making it the longest-running shirt sponsorship in the English Premier League (EPL).
Extending to 2024, many now see this once odd association as the ideal partnership, the perfect shade of “red,” which happens to be the signature color for both of these marquee brands.
Where it all began
Emirates foray into UK football began in 2001, when the little-known airline at the time, signed on as shirt sponsor for cross-town rival Chelsea. But it was the deal between Emirates and Arsenal, inked initially in 2004, that fully symbolized the airline’s global ambitions.
Emirates signed on as both shirt and stadium sponsor for £100m, the biggest combined deal in league history at the time.
Arsenal has been playing in Emirates Stadium since 2006, and the naming rights extend through 2028.
How it all started
Emirates began in 1985, with only two planes and routes from Dubai to Karachi, New Delhi, and Bombay.
Their first sports sponsorship began just two years after inception, with the Dubai powerboat race, and they have been sponsoring marquee sporting events ever since.
Emirates prowess in marketing through sports began with the philosophy of founding CEO, Sir Maurice Flanagan, who once said, “Advertising never produces the same exposure for the money as the rights sponsorship, especially on TV.”
From early on, their aggressive sponsorship strategy reflected their aggressive route expansion strategy.
By 1994, Emirates was sponsoring the Singapore Derby, the International Jockey’s Challenge and the Dubai Rugby 7s, to name a few.
With the added route of Melbourne, Australia in 1996 came the sponsorship of the Australian Cricket team and the Melbourne Cup in 1998.
In 2003, Emirates sponsored their first world event with the FIFA World Cup. By then, the airline had destinations throughout the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Europe, and Africa.
Service to North America began with a flight to New York JFK in 2004—a year later they began sponsorship in the United States with the Kentucky Derby.
In fact, Jaimie Wynne-Morgan, managing director at M&C Saatchi Sports in London once declared, “Emirates has pretty much launched an airline through sponsorship.”
According to an industry report for 2017-2018 compiled by the SportsBusiness Group, Emirates has 54 active deals across the globe, more than double the next most active airline, Delta.
Deep Dive Into Sponsoring Sports
Upon further scrutiny, a few patterns emerge in Emirate’s sponsorship approach. For starters, the airline is not afraid to back an eclectic array of sports: 12 different disciplines to be exact.
This number doubles the nearest duo of Delta and United, at six sports each.
To build local brand awareness and recognition, Emirates has been known to sponsor sports that locals are passionate about.
Take sailing, for instance. Emirates is the title sponsor for New Zealand’s winning America’s Cup team and has been since 2004.
Beyond local passion, Emirates also chooses sports that have a worldwide following, especially among the wealthy global elite.
Sports such as boat racing, Formula One, horse racing, golf, and cricket cater to the globetrotting super-rich and pair well with Emirate’s brand positioning as a premium airline.
Emirates + Football = Proven Success
The Dubai-based airline’s sponsorships extend to just about all places that they operate with a healthy skew toward football.
This makes sense on two fronts, football-crazed Europe represents Emirates largest market at roughly 25% of seats offered; and second, football is the most popular sport on the planet.
By contrast, 21 of Delta’s 23 active sponsorships reside within the United States, their support for Chelsea FC and the Mexican Football Federation being the lone exceptions.
Along with their sponsorship of baseball juggernauts Yankees and Mets in New York, Delta’s sponsorship of Chelsea in London indicates their desire to raise brand awareness in these highly contested markets.
Further still, Delta’s sponsorship of the Mexican Football Federation is in conjunction with their joint venture partner, Aeromexico. In fact, the big three American-based airlines rarely sponsor sports abroad, choosing mainly instead to leverage recognition through sports in their U.S. hub cities.
For instance, United has naming rights for the “United Center” in their hub city of Chicago, a multi-purpose facility that hosts basketball, hockey, and several local events including concerts.
Upon initial blush, it may seem that compared to Emirates, the big three U.S. airlines lack a cosmopolitan understanding of global branding. Yet, these differences largely reflect reality in their different business models and expansion approaches.
Take Delta as an example, only 15% of their seat offerings are in international markets, and the rest of their global reach is through alliances and code-share agreements.
Meanwhile, Emirates remains committed to going it alone. There are risk and reward in both approaches.
Global Execution From Dubai
Entirely reliant on international markets, Emirates has faced significant headwinds to their growth strategy in recent years. Nevertheless, they are showing no signs of slowing down on the sports sponsorship front.
According to the SportsBusiness Group report, they presently have the four biggest active sponsorships for the airline sector.
In most cases, Emirates has renewed even larger deals for the years ahead. Their commitment to sponsorship carries on with current president Sir Tim Clark, who recently explained, “Sponsorship has been one of the best ways to connect with our passengers, allowing us to share and support their interests.”
“We have seen many of our global sponsorship deals pay dividends when it comes to brand recognition,” Clark continues, “especially in new and untapped markets. We see sponsorship as a key element to our continued success.”
As to whether this “go big or go home” philosophy will continue to pay off in the future, only time will tell. However, if the past is any indicator of the future, don’t bet against them.