Airline sponsors seem to be everywhere these days. You can find Fly Emirates’ logo on the shirts of Real Madrid and AC Milan, Qatar Airways sponsor Roma, and Etihad Airways is now a mainstay of all Man City kits.

But what’s in it for them? Why would an airline sponsor a football club? Well, if we look at the specific airlines mentioned and what they have in common it might give us some clues.

The first similarity is geographical; they’re all based in the Middle East. But the second and more important similarity is that they are all publicly owned national carriers: Fly Emirates is owned by the Government of Dubai, Qatar Airways is fully owned by the Qatari Government, and Etihad Airways belongs to the Government of Abu Dhabi.

This means that these airlines aren’t just growing their own brand, but their sponsorship deals also serve as a marketing tool for the countries themselves. If consumers have a more positive perception of the airline, by default they will also have a more positive perception of the country itself and perhaps even consider visiting the country. After all, if you book a flight with Fly Emirates then chances are you will be stopping over in Dubai at some point, even if it isn’t your final destination.

That being said, these airlines do want to project a certain image of their product as well. It’s fair to say that one of the first words that comes to mind when you think of carriers like this is luxury. And we can see this premium branding reflected in the clubs they choose to sponsor.

Fly Emirates have targeted elite clubs in Europe’s top divisions. By far the biggest club on their books right now is Real Madrid, in a deal reported to be worth around 70m euros per year. They also currently sponsor Arsenal in the Premier League, AC Milan in Serie A, Olympique Lyonnais in Ligue 1 and Portuguese giants Benfica – not to mention their long-running deal with Paris Saint Germain that came to an end in 2019.

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With Qatar Airways we see a similar pattern whereby they look to associate their brand with Europe’s most successful clubs, enhancing their reputation of a premium ‘winning’ product. From 2013 to 2017 they sponsored FC Barcelona having taken over from Qatar Foundation, the club’s previous shirt sponsor. They currently sponsor AS Roma, and they also have a deal with Bayern Munich which sees their logo appear on the left sleeve of the German club’s shirts.

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 Etihad Airlines’ portfolio is a lot smaller though, as they focus on City Football Group, which includes shirts sponsorships of New York City and Melbourne City as well as flagship club Manchester City of course.

What’s curious about airline sponsorship is that these three airlines spend huge amounts on associating their brands with these elite clubs and yet very few other airlines choose to invest in football sponsorship.

Perhaps the fact that most airlines tend to operate in particular geographic regions means that expensive football shirt deals, which offer global exposure, just don’t offer good value for money compared to local sponsorships that can be used to target specific markets.

Author: Gareth Thomas