Airlines are often major sponsors of large sports events and spend vast amounts of money to participate and be visible within the sports industry.  

For instance, Qatar Airways is an official partner and airline of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Emirates sponsors more than 15 golf tournaments across the world and is one of the most prominent airlines within golf events. Meanwhile, Etihad Airways is a major sponsor major of the Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.  

But why is the presence of airlines in the sports industry so visible? AeroTime investigates.  

Are sports and travel heavily interrelated? 

Multiple research projects have shown that sports enthusiasts make likely travelers as tourism and sports are interrelated and complementary.  

According to the US Travel Association report, sports travel made up 8% of the total domestic travel market in the United States in 2018, resulting in 190 million domestic trips to attend or participate in a sporting event that year alone.  

Meanwhile, 4 in 10 (37%) international travelers indicated that they were interested in an NBA, NFL or MLB experience when visiting the United States in 2019, up from 24% in 2018. This means that approximately 30 million passengers travel internationally to see sports events.  

Not surprisingly, many airlines are keen on promoting their brand and destinations through sporting events.  

According to a GlobalData report, 85 airlines are currently engaging in sport sponsorship arrangements with 273 deals estimated to be active in 2021. This translates into an estimated US$737 million of sponsorship agreements, making the airline sector one of the most profitable for the sport industry.  

“Over the past few decades, the airline sector has represented a reliable partner for the sports industry, with airlines attaching their branding to numerous sports teams, stadia and events around the world, for huge fees in some cases,” Patrick Kinch, a former sport analyst at GlobalData, explained in the report.  

Additionally, the GlobalData report revealed that Gulf airlines, driven by Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad Airways, are major sponsors within the sports industry. Gulf carriers have heavily invested in sport over the past 10 to 15 years.    

Emirates was the most committed to the sports industry in 2021. The Dubai-based airline had a total of 27 deals with an estimated value of US$218 million. Gulf carriers typically focus on internationally recognized sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup, Formula 1, and the UEFA European Championships.  

Meanwhile, European and North American carriers are usually committed to sports partnerships within their domestic markets or at least the continent, according to GlobalData. 

The airlines most committed to the sports industry in North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia Pacific are United Airlines, Aeromexico, Turkish Airlines, and Qantas, respectively, sports analyst Conrad Wiacek from GlobalData told AeroTime.  

How does sponsoring sport events benefit airlines? 

Analyst Patrich Kinch from YouGov Sport (a former analyst at GlobalData) told AeroTime that sports sponsorship helps build brand awareness, and association with sporting prestige. 

“Whether this translates into people buying more flights is the challenge for airlines, but for sure brand awareness is the main benefit of sponsoring stadia and teams around the world,” Kinch says.  

He adds: “Etihad is more known in the UK now due to their Man City [Manchester City Football Club] partnership, but suspect Brits are not necessarily flying Etihad more often.” 

In a report titled ‘Sponsorship Marketing’, Pennsylvania University professor, Talha Harcar says that sports sponsorship is used as a strong marketing tool not only to raise brand awareness but also to establish brand loyalty among many airlines.   

According to the report, sports partnerships have enabled Turkish Airlines to build a strong brand image and expand title familiarity among the public, leading to passenger and network growth.  

“As a result of successful sponsorship activities and overall company performance Turkish Airlines has held the title of Europe’s Best Airline for four consecutive years,” the study found. 

Echoing the study’s findings, Wiacek revealed that all airline brands use sponsorship deals to build brand loyalty. 

Wiacek also said that some airlines are quite tactical when it comes to choosing sponsorship deals. For example, Emirates often forms sponsorships within the cities it operates to, such as Paris, Milan, and London.  

Meanwhile, other carriers use associations with large-scale events and vast audiences to ensure all eyes are on the airline. For example, Qatar Airways was an official sponsor of the FIFA World Cup from 2018 to 2022 and Delta Air Lines has been sponsoring the Olympic Games since 2014 and will continue to support the sporting event until 2028. 

Why are airlines hooked on partnerships with the sports industry? 

According to Kinch, airlines tend to form partnerships with the sports industry rather than the music or film industries because airlines have a greater expectation of long-term benefit.  

"Film and music tend to represent moments in time. Sports seasons in Europe and America can run for months on end with regular TV audience access, rather than just live screenings,” Kinch says. 

“Also, if you're the title sponsor of a sports venue, you may be able to benefit from use beyond the sports industry. Think how a basketball arena may also be used for music or comedy etc. So, sport can give you access to multiple industry audiences if you get the right property,” he adds.  

Meanwhile, Wiacek says that sports sponsorship is effective because of the loyalty fans have towards teams or sports. He added that even each NFL team will have an official airline partner due to the distance teams travel across the United States. 

“The entertainment industry simply doesn’t foster that same level of affiliation so [it] makes it less attractive. Sports teams and leagues have fanatical loyalty, so any partnership is trying to tap into that by association,” Wiacek says.  

He continues: “While brands in some sectors can activate their partnerships i.e., beer brands, airlines have to use the appeal of flying either spectators or the team to events as an exhibition of their ability.” 

What’s the future of airline marketing? 

According to Wiacek, the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted the airline sponsorship sector, with many airlines suffering huge losses, hence restricting marketing expenditure. However, he expects sponsorship to regain interest once the travel industry fully recovers.  

“Major events like the Olympics and World Cup will continue to be attractive to brands who see opportunities and positive associations,” Wiacek adds. 

Wiacek also sees serious commitment to sports sponsorships being made in the near future. He expects certain clubs like Manchester United Football Club to announce new airline partnerships in due course given the cancellation of the club’s deal with Russian carrier Aeroflot. 

Additionally, Qatar Airways will be a partner of Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup, Turkish Airlines will continue to be the official sponsor of Euroleague Basketball until 2025, and Delta Airlines (DAL) are currently a partner of LA2028, paying US$50m a year for the association despite the global pandemic, according to Wiacek.