Etihad scores winner with US Major League Soccer

The Abu Dhabi carrier’s strategy bears fruit through its tie-ups with the football team New York FC and Major League Soccer. Etihad is now a widely recognised brand in the US and that is only set to grow.

New York City FC fans get behind their team at Yankee Stadium. Elsa / Getty Images / AFP
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NEW YORK // The former Spain international football star David Villa has fulfilled the pledge he gave to the New York City FC (NYCFC) faithful a year ago.

“I promise next year we will be back stronger and we will bring success to this city,” he said after his side lost to New England in the final game of the 2015 US Major League Soccer (MLS) season.

And stronger they are. At the end of the final day (known as “Decision Day”) of the MLS conference games over the weekend of October 15, not only had NYCFC qualified for the play-offs for the national title, the club had also managed to avoid the anxiety-filled knockout round.

This, understandably, has provided much to cheer about for Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways – NYCFC’s kit sponsor and one of its founding partners since 2014, after the club was created in 2013. All will be hoping the team can progress further when it takes on Canada’s Toronto FC MLS squad in the Eastern Conference semi-final on Monday UAE time.

“The international reach of sport is tremendous and our partnerships within the US are a natural step in raising awareness about our brand, our home of Abu Dhabi, and the renowned service offerings of our airline,” says Patrick Pierce, the vice president of sponsorships for Etihad.

“We associate ourselves closely with partnerships that reflect our own position as innovators within our industry,” he adds.

“Both Major League Soccer and New York City Football Club share a similar outlook.”

Mr Pierce believes all the efforts undertaken by Etihad to build a robust presence across the United States are valuable.

That belief is all the more relevant today as the brand looks to increase its market share on the much-desired transatlantic routes that connect North America to Asia.

“NYCFC has given us a strong platform for exposure and fan engagement in New York City, while MLS has given us national reach, allowing us to leverage assets in the other US cities we serve, including Washington, DC, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago,” Mr Pierce says.

“The US is an important market for Etihad’s growth, and our long-term partnerships with both properties have been instrumental in the maturation of our brand during the past few years.”

Etihad entered the US airline market in 2005, two years after the carrier was formed, with an inaugural flight to New York’s John F Kennedy Airport. Since then, it has been an upward journey with the number of US destinations growing to six and additional locations in sight.

As one of the “Big Three” carriers in the Middle East, along with Emirates and Qatar Airlines, maintaining and increasing brand awareness in North America is of major importance for Etihad and the UAE.

In a 2015 study by the US Travel Association, the UAE US was ranked as the top destination and source market for long-haul travel.

Moreover, based on a June 2016 study by the US department of commerce, outbound travel (excluding Mexico and Canada) by US residents totalled 74 million in 2015, up 9 per cent from 2014, which offers more opportunity for Etihad to gain market share.

Hence, in a country that is deeply immersed in sport, America provides the carrier with an ideal market in which to boost its brand through sports sponsorship.

And, with a clutter of advertisers already engaged with mainstream US sports such as American football, basketball, baseball and hockey, it was a shrewd move for Etihad to target a more niche sector such as football – one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.

The airline entered the US sport market with its high-profile sponsorship of the MLS and NYCFC, a franchise owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group.

The primary interest of the group is its ownership of City Football Group, a worldwide organisation most notably controlling the English Premier League club Manchester City, Melbourne City FC and NYCFC. Etihad also added to its US exposure at a national level through its multi-year sponsorship deal with MLS, signed in 2014.

Since then, Etihad has and continues to work towards strengthening ties between the US and the UAE by aligning itself with entities associated with the destinations it serves, most famously its partnership with Monumental Sports & Entertainment. Monumental owns and operates the National Hockey League team the Washington Capitals, the National Basketball Association club Washington Wizards and the Women’s National Basketball Association side the Washington Mystics. And alongside sport, new opportunities are being added.

“As we place greater emphasis on consumer engagement in key markets, 2016 has seen us again grow the portfolio with our newest global partnership with IMG Fashion, which includes official airline status of New York Fashion Week, held in February and September each year,” says Mr Pierce.

November will mark the second anniversary of Etihad’s tie up with NYCFC and its association with MLS. The exposure generated by those deals has proved remarkably productive. Data from the US department of transportation (DoT) reveals a 33 per cent increase year-on-year in the number of outbound passengers who travelled with Etihad in 2015.

The previous year was even more positive, with a 54 per cent increase over 2013. From January to April this year, 126,388 passengers opted to fly Etihad from the six locations across the US, DoT data show.

Ben Glidden, the director of marketing at Third Rail – a non-profit membership organisation and an official NYCFC supporters group, reveals how Etihad’s marketing strategy works at a personal level.

“I think Etihad is trying to bring a very international company closer to home for the people of New York,” he says.

“I’d personally have no affinity to Etihad, positive or negative, prior to the NYCFC sponsorship. But because they sponsor the team, I now wear shirts with their name on the front, I go to the stadium and see the name everywhere, I walk into a sporting goods store and there they are.

“The name recognition now is off the charts and that can only help Etihad. The people of New York come from all over, and now might be more likely to consider Etihad for travel moving forward.”

Mr Pierce agrees. “In the past 10 years, Etihad Airways has increased the number of US destinations served to six including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, DC and San Francisco,” he says.

“In addition, we have increased the capacity into these destinations due to passenger demand. We have an Airbus A380 flying into JFK with our second flight to be served by an A380, beginning in June 2017. A Boeing 787 Dreamliner serves guests flying to and from Dulles [Washington].

“NYCFC, MLS and our other US-based partnerships have played an important role in that growth as we reinforce the Etihad Airways brand in the US,” Mr Pierce adds.

The Abu Dhabi-led sponsorship of NYCFC has been broadly welcomed by New Yorkers such as Mr Glidden.

“The only negative I see is that NYCFC is so inherently New York. We represent New York in every way and are proud of the NYC on our crest,” he says, referring to the club logo on the team’s shirts.

However, he admits: “I’d love to have a sponsor that was also inherently New York. But I know soccer is a global sport and I welcome a global sponsor.”

NYCFC finished second in the Eastern Conference standings with 54 points, behind local rivals New York Red Bulls at the end of Major League Soccer’s regular domestic schedule. The team, which plays home games at the esteemed Yankee stadium in the Bronx neighbourhood of New York City, has comfortably made it through to the end of the season play-offs, the first of which is against Toronto today. Given that the club can call on the skills and experience of players such as Villa, the former England and Chelsea star Frank Lampard and the Italy international Andrea Pirlo – in a squad coached by the ex-French World Cup winner Patrick Vieira – making the play-offs is perhaps no surprise.

And as well as gaining from US exposure, Etihad has in turn had a positive impact on the American economy. In July, The National reported that, according to a report commissioned from Oxford Economics for the airline’s parent the Etihad Aviation Group (EAG), the group reckoned its economic contribution to be US$10.7 billion, including supporting 108,000 jobs across the US. The $10.7bn headline number includes the operation of direct flights to its six hub cities in the US as well as significant capital spending with US-based suppliers, mainly new aircraft.

Oxford Economics estimates EAG’s contribution to the US economy will rise to more than $18bn by 2024, supporting more than 171,000 jobs.

While airlines in America have cried foul over alleged Arabian Gulf government subsidies granted to the Big Three, which they vehemently deny, there is evidence that codeshare partnerships between Gulf carriers and US airlines are a benefit for the latter.

Etihad alone provided US airlines with 182,000 connecting passengers in 2014, the Oxford Economics report stated. And the number is estimated to have risen by 65 per cent for last year.

Alongside increasing awareness – and business for US airlines – in North America, Etihad also strives to find effective ways to keep MLS fans onside.

“At the core of our fan engagement experiences, we want to create excitement, bring fans closer to the players and deliver engaging content, whether it be through exclusive access to players, premium seating, hospitality opportunities, or on-the-ground activations,” says Mr Pierce.

As part of that commitment, Etihad has developed several means of connecting directly with fans.

“When we first launched our partnership with NYCFC, we offered fans a chance to win a trip to Manchester for the pre-season City Football Academy, a promotion that succeeded in connecting sports fans from across the globe,” says Mr Pierce.

“Additionally, we run an ongoing activation called a ‘First-Class Seat Upgrade’ at every [NYCFC] home game, which sees two lucky fans ‘upgraded’ to VIP pitchside seating – the best seats in the stadium. [In addition] our cabin crew are often present for home games,” further raising brand awareness.

“With regard to content, we have a regular digital activation through ‘Etihad Player of the Month’ – where fans go online and vote for their top players. This runs across both MLS and NYCFC and fans can win signed merchandise from the players,” adds Mr Pierce.

A club that prides itself on bringing in and developing young and talented players, NYCFC is working hard to build towards the future – and expectations remain high among fans.

“When you’re in a city like New York, there’s always going to be an intense amount of scrutiny around the sports teams,” says Mr Glidden

“We see it with the Knicks [New York basketball team], Yankees [baseball team], et cetera. Moving forward, expectations will continue to be high.”

Fans such as Mr Glidden illustrate that feeling. “We want trophies. We want consistency. We want success,” he says.

“And we trust that we have the leadership to bring us there.”

While only time will tell, there is little doubt Etihad is flying high in its bid to champion the cause – for itself, the UAE and US sport.

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