The importance of sports sponsorship to Etihad's global business

Posted on Oct 6, 2020 by Brad McCabe

Yasser Al Yousuf, VP Commercial Partnerships, Etihad Aviation Group, says sponsorship is a key component to the airline's commercial strategy 

For years, the UAE has joined forces with the world’s elite athletes and sports teams to promote the country around the world.

One of the stand-out deals is the sponsorship of Manchester City by Etihad Airways which, at the time of the signature, was valued at $462 million.

So what makes sports so attractive to major UAE-based companies? We sat down with Yasser Al Yousuf, VP Commercial Partnerships, Etihad Aviation Group, to find out.

AB: What are the main criteria in how Etihad chooses its sponsorships?

Al Yousuf: Sponsorship has always been an important component of Etihad’s commercial strategy, and naturally this has included a specific focus on global sporting affiliations. Sponsorship partners are selected in line with our brand values and positioning, along with our overall commercial objectives.

When assessing opportunities, we’ll consider the relevance and importance of the market where the sponsorship is operating; or whether, as with Manchester City FC and Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the reach is truly global. 

Sponsorship assets are key for brand awareness and we will always think about how relatable the opportunity is to our guests and the industry. It’s also important to consider how complementary each sponsorship opportunity will be with our existing extensive portfolio.

A detailed return on investment analysis will always support any business case for a new sponsorship partner.

AB: What are the commercial objectives of your sponsorship strategies?

Al Yousuf: Commercially, our sponsorship portfolio is designed to deliver on brand awareness, engagement and sentiment, as well as revenue generation and corporate social responsibility (CSR) objectives.

Most importantly, and wherever possible, we intend to promote the brand of Abu Dhabi globally and grow business and leisure traffic to the emirate. In many cases, for example with the Special Olympics Abu Dhabi, the Ultimate Fighting Championships and Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, this is the central pillar of our partnership. 

One of the really interesting ways we have integrated our sports sponsorships into the business, is through unique aircraft liveries, for example, when we sponsored the Special Olympics Abu Dhabi we created a bespoke livery featuring the faces of four of the UAE’s Special Olympics champions. We unveiled it in a touching ceremony with the athletes and that aircraft has travelled the world over.

AB: Are there countries where your involvement with a high-profile team has made a noticeable difference to subsequent air traffic?

Al Yousuf: There are a couple of notable examples here. Firstly, in Washington, we have a fantastic partnership with Monumental Sports & Entertainment which we have enjoyed since 2015. Etihad is the exclusive international airline partner of the Washington Capitals (NHL), Washington Wizards (NBA), Washington Mystics (WNBA) as well as Capital One Arena. We are also the official naming rights partner for the VIP lounge at Capital One Arena, which serves approximately 2,000 VIP guests and fans on Wizards and Capitals game nights.

At the time of the launch, Etihad was not well known in the local market. However, the Monumental Sports partnership catapulted us into this market and significantly improved our brand awareness in the strategically important US capital. As a result, this has contributed to increased traffic on Etihad’s flight operations to and from Washington Dulles. 

Secondly, our long-standing partnership with Manchester City FC has helped to build significant brand equity in Manchester and consequently supported two flights per day during normal operations.

To put it briefly, these sports partnerships have helped to put us on the map!

AB: What are some of the key benefits of high-profile sports sponsorship? Both to Etihad, but also to the country?

Al Yousuf: As I’ve said above, the key benefits include driving awareness, positive sentiment and ultimately traffic, towards both Abu Dhabi and Etihad.

However, there are many additional benefits such as access to incredible corporate hospitality allowing us to entertain Etihad Guests, corporate clients and key partners with ‘money can’t buy’ entertainment experiences.

There are longer term benefits too – these sponsorships embed us in the local community giving us greater opportunity to dialogue with our customer base and give back to the community. For example, this year we were proud to support Manchester City’s Young Leaders Summit – an outreach initiative supporting young leaders in their local communities around the world.

AB: How is ROI measured at this level? What are some of the factors?

Al Yousuf: We work with the top sports data analysists to professionally measure and evaluate return on investment. We examine several metrics including social media, sales, brand engagement, awareness and sentiment. We also regularly run sales campaigns based on individual sponsorship assets which makes it easy to directly attribute the results of these.

AB: In terms of a profit or return, is sports sponsorship ultimately good for business?

Al Yousuf: Of course! We are confident that sports sponsorship has directly impacted the business, especially in highly competitive markets or where we have entered new territory. 

AB: Is it considered a bit risky to support sports teams – they don’t always win!

Al Yousuf: Anyone who is passionate about sport will know it’s not just about winning! We are part of the community, the winning, the losing and the passion that goes with it. For us, sports sponsorship is about the exposure and the creation of a narrative that talks directly to the community. We’re in it together with the teams and the fans. When they do win though, it’s incredible!

AB: How does the DNA of an airline align with that of a sports team?

Al Yousuf: That’s a great question. For us, as an airline, we truly understand that the ‘team’ culture and spirit is as important to us as it is to any of the greatest sporting teams. We are strongest when we work together, and every member of the team plays its part.

And just like a sports team, we are always striving to be better and to be the best we can be.

AB: How many requests do you receive for sponsorship?

Al Yousuf: We are frequently approached with requests for sponsorship and these requests range from large scale global companies, to smaller, local organisations.

In recent years, we tried experimenting with niche audiences, however, we found that sports are global, inclusive and wide-reaching; in essence, nothing compares to sport. 

Article by Jola Chudy as posted on Arabian Business.

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