Ex-Spanish international David Villa had fulfilled on his promise to New York City FC faithful a year ago.
“I promise next year we will be back stronger and we will bring success to this city,” he said after losing to New England in the final game of the 2015 season.
And stronger they were. At the end of the final evening (Decision Day) of MLS conference games a few weekends ago, not only did NYCFC qualify for the playoffs, the club also managed to avoid the anxiety-filled knockout round.
“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. We associate ourselves closely with partnerships that reflect our own position as innovators within our industry. Both Major League Soccer and New York City Football Club share a similar outlook,” said Patrick Pierce, Vice President of Sponsorships for Etihad Airways.
All efforts undertaken by Abu Dhabi based Etihad Airways to build a robust association across the U.S. are valuable. More so as the brand looks into increasing its market share on the much-desired transatlantic sector which connects North America and the Sub Continental Asian region.
“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. 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,” said Mr. Pierce.
Etihad entered the market in 2005, two years after it 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 destinations growing steadily to six with additional locations in sight.
As consumers in the U.S. face similar behavioral shifts as their global counterparts, for brands to stay in tune with the sentiment is ever increasing. As the ‘big three’ from the Middle East consistently work along with their respective stakeholders in the US with an attempt to stake their foothold within, maintaining a top-of-mind awareness could not be any more significant.
In a 2015 study completed by the U.S. Travel Association, the nation was ranked as the top destination and source market for long-haul travel. Moreover, outbound travel (excluding Mexico and Canada) by U.S. residents saw a positive Year-over-Year increase, based on a June 2016 study conducted by U.S. Department of Commerce, which only strengthens the competition for the market share.
Hence, in a market that is deeply immersed in sports, it was only ideal to capture consumer attention through the platform. However, with the clutter of advertisers that exist in top American pastime sports such as American Football, Basketball, Baseball and Hockey, it was more than important to stand out and find that niche of an association. For Etihad, that niche was soccer – one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.
The brand entered the sport with it’s high-profile sponsorship of recently formed franchise under the Abu Dhabi United Group – New York City FC while casting a wider net of exposure at a national level through its sponsorship with Major League Soccer.
Since then, Etihad has and continues to work towards strengthening ties between the two nations by aligning itself with entities focused upon the six destinations they serve, most famously with its partnership of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates the Washington Capitals (NHL), Washington Wizards (NBA) and Washington Mystics (WNBA). And this portfolio keeps growing.
“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,” said Mr. Pierce.
This month marks the two year association between Etihad, NYCFC and its association with MLS. While it is needless to address how these two years has helped shape up Etihad in terms of awareness as TV viewership and average match day attendance rise, data by U.S. Department of Transportation reveals a 33% increase in the number of outbound passengers who travelled via Etihad in 2015, compared to 54% in 2014. As of April 2016, 126,388 passengers have opted to fly Etihad from the six locations across the U.S.
Ben Glidden, Director of Marketing at Third Rail – a non-profit membership organization and a formal NYCFC supporters group, explains his perception of the brand and its effect.
“I think Etihad is trying to bring a very international company closer to home for the people of New York. 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.”
While Etihad do not share revenue figures specific to individual markets, there is confirmation that these sponsorships are impacting the brand in a positive manner.
“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, D.C. and San Francisco. 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. 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,” said Mr. Pierce.
While admitting that soccer is a global game, there exists a flip side to the Abu Dhabi led sponsorship of NYCFC for New Yorkers like Ben.
“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. 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.”
The second-year team – NYCFC finished second behind derby rivals New York Red Bulls in the domestic club schedule. The club, who play their home games at the esteemed Yankee stadium in Bronx, had comfortably made it through to the end of the season play-off’s, unsurprisingly enough, given the likes of David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo in the squad coached by ex-French World Cup Winner Patrick Vieira. However, their first stint in the play-off’s was not as easy going as they thought it would be, losing the first leg in Toronto 0 – 2 and the second at home by a scoreline of 0 – 5.
That being said, given current uncertain economic times, Etihad Airways has positively impacted the economy in the U.S. According to a report by Oxford Economics, a UK based research firm, economic contribution to the U.S. by the brand was approximately US$10.7 billion, while supporting or creating 108,000 jobs across the nation. And future projections suggest contribution to the economy to be increase by more than $18 billion by 2024.
While U.S. based Airlines cry foul over alleged government subsidies granted to their foreign counterparts, especially those from the Middle East, there is evidence to prove how code share partnerships between foreign and domestic airlines are proving significant for the latter.
Etihad alone provided 182,000 connecting passengers onto U.S. based carriers in 2014. With the introduction of new destinations, the number was projected to rise by 65 per cent in 2015.
And the brand has strived to find authentic ways to connect with fans while bringing them the fans engaged while maintaining that top of mind awareness.
“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,” said Mr. Pierce.
As part of that commitment, Etihad had developed several activation’s focusing on the MLS fan since launching its dual sponsorship of MLS and NYCFC, as explained by Mr. Pierce.
“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. Additionally, we run an ongoing activation called a “First Class Seat Upgrade” at every home game, which sees two lucky fans ‘upgraded’ to VIP pitchside seating – the best seats in the stadium. Our cabin crew are often present for home games. With regard to content, we have a regular digital activation through ‘Etihad Player of the Month’ – where fans go on line and vote for their top players. This runs across both MLS and NYCFC and fans can win signed merchandise from the players.”
It is very difficult to say that emerging markets are around the bend for good. It is more likely that the current good times will be followed by more turbulence and economic pain for the developing world.