Delta Makes The Sports World Smaller

About eight years ago, Emirates Airways, looking to find a way to start connecting with an American sporting audience, joined forces with the Breeder’s Cup as a key sponsor. At the time, some looked at the partnership as a stretch by the airline, which had little presence in the United States but a bigger tie to the Gulf States patrons who also were heavily investing in horse racing while American breeders were leaving the business. Patronage at its best.  Really?

Today, the Dubai based airline operates four of the world’s ten longest non-stop commercial flights from Dubai to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, and Houston and is continuing its push into the American marketplace. It also never stopped expanding its sports sponsorship, taking the title sponsorship of tennis’ US Open Series to go along with its extensive golf, horse racing, soccer and cricket partnerships. The Breeders Cup was just a first step into brand integration in the United States, a very cost-effective move that is part of a growing strategy.

So it is with that knowledge of history that is should come as no huge surprise that Atlanta-based Delta Airlines, looking to grow its footprint outside of the United States, aligned itself with the storied mega-club Chelsea this week, becoming the club’s official airline partner. Delta, already a sports branding stalwart in the United States with deals with the New York Yankees, the Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings, the New York Mets and the Minnesota Vikings among others, will leverage the Chelsea partnership to link a solid U.S. base not just to Europe but well beyond, using Chelsea as the bridge.

From a timing standpoint, the deal makes even more sense, as Chelsea comes to the U.S. for a series of “friendlies” in July and Americans venture abroad for London 2012, giving a wide runway to market on both sides of the Atlantic to a sports-savvy public. The implementation of a strong social media component, something that a few years ago would not have been available to bolster such a partnership beyond geographic borders, will add even more to a spend that is truly global for a solid  American brand.

More importantly for other brands who might have been gun shy in understanding the global sports marketplace vs. just the North American landscape, the deal shows that it is becoming more and more accepted to create high level partnerships in sport that transcend borders and cultures. While the airline might not start by sponsoring a Chelsea bobblehead night, it will find ways to tap into the club’s loyal supporters for activation in the mobile space and with any other series of evolving promotions. Delta’s move follows the deal General Motors signed with Manchester United in May, the first large-scale American sports sponsorship in the Barclay’s Premier League. Delta’s was the second, and it certainly won’t be the last.

So what does this type of brand expansion mean for American sports organizations? Trouble? Not really. It probably means that the global marketplace is even more wide open for brands like an Emirates Airways to finally tap into the American sports landscape for brand extensions, just as Delta and GM have now done in the UK. Social and digital media have helped to create opportunities and break down barriers to entry for brands in new marketplaces which leads to greater possibilities and a larger potential marketplace. It is certainly not for the small scale spend, but for a society that is becoming more and more diverse along with being more sports business savvy the potential for unique deals is greater than ever before.

Emirates may have been one of the first to the race with the Breeders Cup, a sponsorship that at the time raised eyebrows, but it may have opened a visionary floodgate that other brands now appear to be ready to sprint through.