Emirates Airline making sports push

Emirates Airline built the equivalent of a luxury condo for visitors at the U.S. Open. Courtesy of Emirates Airline

Airlines used to be bigger spenders in sports, but greater focus on crunching fuel prices seemingly has taken priority in recent years.

Gone is the flurry of brands looking to place their names on buildings, like Delta did in Utah, United in Chicago and American Airlines in Miami and Dallas.

But there's a new big spender in the space, looking to "wow" sports fans and create new business.

Those who visited the U.S. Open the past two weeks would have had a hard time not stopping to take a look at the Emirates Airline booths, encased in glass and filled with flight attendants.

It could be viewed as a surprising sponsorship, but the amount of potential business at hand makes the brand's investment clear.

"We are still low on brand awareness," said Roger Duthie, head of sponsorship for Emirates, which is now the world's biggest airline. "We need to tell people what we are all about."

In recent years, as Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, has grown into a tourist destination, the airline has ramped up its advertising in the sports space. It most famously has spent money on soccer in Europe, putting its name on Arsenal's jerseys and stadium, on AC Milan's jerseys, and becoming the official airline of Real Madrid. Its sponsorship with FIFA gives the airline highly visible signage during World Cup games. It also has sponsored a European Tour event, the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, and the European Ryder Cup team.

But in July, Emirates doubled its efforts in the United States by signing a huge deal with the United States Tennis Association, which conducts the U.S. Open Series and culminates with the Open itself. The reported value of the seven-year deal is $91 million.

Duthie said the company is doing more in the U.S. because as of this month, it now flies to Dubai or through Dubai from seven U.S. cities. Tennis appealed more specifically to Emirates because of the ability to reach a broad range of potential passengers "from the public, to the corporates to the VIPs," Duthie said.

"The reality is that in our A380 aircraft, we are striving to fill 477 economy seats, 76 business seats and 14 first-class seats," he said.

The star is obviously the first-class seat, which is on display on the grounds of the U.S. Open. Fans can sit in the reclining leather seat to experience the level of comfort and detail.

"We want people to come to know us as a lifestyle brand," Duthie said, "and that means we not only have to do sponsorship deals but we have to invest significantly."

While the first-class seat, the glass, the back-wall signage on the courts and the flight attendants might get the average fan to stop and take a look, Emirates used a double suite it acquired in the U.S. Open deal to score with buzz leaders and VIPs.

Emirates gutted the space it was given and built what basically amounts to a luxury condo situated in the middle of the facility's prime court, Arthur Ashe Stadium. Although there isn't a particular return on investment that he is looking for, Duthie said the schedule saw roughly 80 people in the corporate world visit Emirates' suite every day.

The truth is, in a day and age when the other airlines have to answer to the stock market, Emirates is owned by the government of Dubai. That means each customer is worth more because the airline benefits not only from flying them there, but also from winning the business of the customers who choose to vacation or do business there. Expect Emirates to become a top-10 global sponsor of sports in the next five years.