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From Moscow to Manchester, airlines get a kick out of deals with football clubs

From Manchester United to Borussia Dortmund, Turkish Airlines has aligned itself with successful football teams, and other airlines have followed suit.

Story highlights

  • Aeroflot became official airline of Manchester United earlier this summer
  • Value of five-year deal was not disclosed
  • Airlines increasingly seeing value in aligning their brand with football teams
  • Both clubs and airlines look for new international markets and fans

What does a Russian airline still shaking off a dubious reputation have in common with one of the biggest football clubs in the world? A match made in branding heaven if you're the marketing men for Aeroflot and Manchester United.

Earlier this summer the Russian carrier signed a five year deal with the English Premier League champions to be the club's official airline.

If it raised a few eyebrows among fans around Old Trafford who wondered if their team would be flying to their European fixtures via Moscow, the view from Russia is that the deal means a great deal indeed.

"Manchester United is one of the leading clubs in the world, with a fan base of 600 million," said Aeroflot's Alexander Lukashin. "We share common values of teamwork and are both leaders in the market."

The airline might be a market leader in Russia, but it has a way to go before becoming a major international airline. Yet the deal is just one instance of how much airlines are valuing alliances with successful sports teams.

"Davai Untied!" Aeroflot and United announced the deal in July.

"Manchester United often talk about having hundreds of millions global fans, including 18 million in Russia. (Aeroflot) are desperate for the traffic and to migrate some of those fans onto their planes," said Dave Chattaway, Brand Finance's Head of Sports Valuation.

According to Brand Finance, Aeroflot is the 19th most valuable airline brand, while Manchester United are second behind Bayern Munich on the company's list of most valuable football clubs.

With privileged access to players for airline promotions and pitch-side advertisements, Lukashin expects the airline to ally with the most eye-catching parts of Manchester United. Expect a Manchester United branded plane, TV spots with the likes of Robin van Persie and Ryan Giggs in the not too distant future and their faces to loom large on Aeroflot billboards around the world.

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Deals between airlines and football clubs are nothing new, but the size of the deals and scope of the partnerships have boomed in the last few years. Most of Europe's top clubs have an official airline partner, while Barcelona this year broke its 113-year tradition of having no corporate sponsor on the front of their shirt to display Qatar Airways.

Extending these airline partnerships is a logical step for football clubs, says Chattaway.

"These days it's more a question of why haven't all top ten English Premier League teams got an official airline," he said.

"There are cross-selling opportunities for both clubs and airlines and huge awareness opportunities for airlines."

The help in logistics for the clubs is one benefit of the deals. Manchester United were whisked around their pre-season tour of Asia on a private jet equipped with lie-flat business class seats, while rivals Manchester City have shirt sponsors Etihad to help with the team's travels. Chelsea FC entered into a deal with U.S. carrier Delta last year to be the club's official airline sponsor. Aeroflot says it will offer Manchester United "strategic travel advice."

Qatar Airways is the first corporate sponsor on Barcelona's shirts.

The real pay-off however comes from the boost in finances as clubs seek new way to grow revenue and reach emerging markets.

Aeroflot declined to say how much the deal with Manchester United was worth, but industry observers believe they out-bid Turkish Airlines, the club's previous airline sponsor, for an alliance with the club.

If the Aeroflot Manchester United deal seems slightly incongruous, it is perhaps because the biggest players in sponsorship deals have hitherto been the booming airlines from the Middle East-- Emirates, Qatar Airlines and Etihad Airways -- with Emirates a long-time supporter of sports teams, not just football, around the world.

Emirates aim for high-flyers with private jet service

The Dubai-based airline's name can be seen on the shirts of some of the world's best known teams -- Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan -- and it also boasts a sponsorship deal with Real Madrid.

"Emirates have a habit of sponsoring clubs when they open new routes," said Chattaway. "It can help them bring in promotions and advertise new routes."

Chattaway believes the number of deals and their value will only increase in years to come, as brand positioning and the desire to find new markets becoming more important for both football clubs and airlines.

"When (Indonesian airline) Garuda said it wanted to become a five-star airline, one of the first things it did was partner with a global brand," he said.

Steven Gerrard, the England and Liverpool FC captain, can now be seen with other club players smiling at passengers on a Garuda plane in one of the airline's TV adverts.

"Airlines have realized that partnering with sports is the quickest way to make tag lines like Turkish Airways' 'Globally Yours' a reality," said Chattaway.

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