Sporting sponsorships which are in a league of their own

Blue-chip companies are happy to put their shirts on the English Premier League - with video.

Some of the biggest airlines in the region enjoyed a record season as the football clubs they sponsored blazed a trail of glory through Europe. Dan Istitene / Getty Images
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The scene in West London was one of jubilation as Queens Park Rangers football club ended an amazing season with a place in the elite English Premier League.

Showered in blue and white confetti, the players celebrated winning the Championship, the de facto second division in England, this month to book their ticket to the big time.

Thousands of kilometres away in Gulf Air's Bahrain offices, the euphoria was just as great, as the team's shirt sponsors revelled in Queens Park Rangers' (QPR) success.

"[This] was a fantastic season for Queens Park Rangers and their promotion to the Premier Division was well deserved, I would like to congratulate them on their achievement," says Samer Majali, the chief executive of Gulf Air.

"Gulf Air's golden falcon [logo] has proved very lucky for the team, which has gone strength to strength in the last three years. We are proud to be associated with the club and I wish them the best of luck for the future."

Throughout the region, some of the biggest airlines enjoyed a record season as the clubs they sponsored blazed a trail of glory through Europe.

Emirates Airline, which pioneered sports sponsorship in the Middle East and is the biggest spender in the region, is the official shirt sponsor of AC Milan, the winners of Italy's Serie A title, and the English Premier League club Arsenal's home ground is named after the Dubai carrier.

Etihad Airways, the Abu Dhabi airline, has an estimated US$11.69 million (Dh42.93m) sponsorship deal with this season's FA Cup winners Manchester City. Across the world, millions of television viewers watched City's stars strut their stuff in Etihad-sponsored shirts as they beat Stoke City 1-0 at Wembley to lift the cup this month.

Next year, Etihad and Manchester City will take on Europe after the team clinched a place in the Uefa Champion's League, the final of which draws more than 110 million television viewers from around the globe.

"It will have a huge effect on the target audience," says Peter Baumgartner, the chief commercial officer of Etihad.

"If the team would have just continued along its positive progression line it would have meant linear growth. [But the European tournament will] catapult us into higher sphere - it's the difference between exponential versus linear growth," he adds.

"Moving forward to next season with the Champion's League exposure and general interest in the brand value, we are most probably going to a five-to-one return on our sponsorship investment, which is a very good result."

Emirates also had a stellar season with AC Milan and to a lesser degree with Arsenal in the English Premier League.

The Dubai carrier first signed an agreement with AC Milan in September 2007. A year later, the relationship with the Italian giants was elevated to "top institutional sponsor" and in February last year, the airline announced a new five-year shirt sponsorship agreement with the Italian champions.

"We congratulate the team, and as this was the first year of our shirt sponsorship, we would like to think that AC Milan benefited from a touch of Emirates' magic," says Salem Obaidalla, the senior vice president of commercial operations at the airline.

The value of shirt sponsorship cannot be underestimated. In the English Premier League, major companies splashed out more than $115m to have their names in the spotlight, according to data from the research company Sporting Intelligence.

"You measure how many seconds a logo appears and in what quality, on what TV channels and with what audience behind it," Mr Baumgartner says. "You put a dollar value of what it would have cost if you had bought that media exposure on the advertising market."

It is not just the world's blue-chip football clubs that benefit from sponsorship deals.

Far from the multimillion-dollar endorsements of the English Premier League and Serie A, UAE companies are involved at the sport's grass-roots level.

While Emirates paid about $160m for its association with Arsenal, the global airline is also involved in much smaller deals.

A glance at the Dubai Amateur Football League's website reveals a list of high-profile companies associated with low-profile teams such as the Noodle House Irish A, Western Union FC and Shj Wanderers (National Paints).

But while such sponsorship pales in comparison with the seven-figure deals involving clubs such as AC Milan, Manchester City and Arsenal, marketing analysts say it can still give brands a valuable boost.

"Grass-roots sponsorship can definitely pay off," says Seth Holmes, the director of consulting at IMG Middle East, a sports marketing agency. "The important thing is that you have clear objectives before you start."

But the value of such deals varies greatly.

"At the lowest level an amateur team would probably look to cover its costs," Mr Holmes says. "[These deals can cost] anything from thousands of dirhams … to up to six figures," he adds.

While the value of grass-roots sponsorship in media terms is relatively low, it can be priceless in building a relationship with the local community.

"It tends to be informal," says Brian Greenwood, the managing partner for India and the Middle East at the sports marketing consultancy Prism.

"There's no media coverage, so the deals tend to be quite small. For an amateur team, you could just provide them with a free kit … which would cost a few thousand pounds [sterling]."

But this kind of sponsorship does create a public-relations buzz.

"If the objective is to build relationships with a local or specific community then grass roots could be both very effective and efficient," Mr Greenwood says.

Mr Holmes believes "grass roots" schemes are most effective when they link into a company's wider vision.

Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank sponsors a junior football tournament in the UAE, and uses the competition to promote the bank's Banoon children's savings account.

"One of our clients, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, is just investing in grass-roots sponsorship. They see it as a way to connect with a certain kind of customer," says Mr Holmes. "It's being able to reach not just 400 schoolchildren, but more importantly, their parents."

But while grass-roots sponsorship can give a brand added value, there is nothing like success at the highest level to increase public awareness.

Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Manchester to celebrate City's recent victory in the FA Cup, giving Etihad a boost in media exposure.

"Abu Dhabi is definitely being associated with a champion. And next year, the viewership will grow. It can only get better for Etihad," says Bashar Abdulkarim, the managing director of sports marketing and sponsorship consultancy at Relay Mena in Dubai.

bflanagan@thenational.ae