As the jubilant German soccer team hoisted its World Cup trophy and FIFA President Sepp Blatter preened, a phalanx of Emirates flight attendants flanked the scene in frozen smiles.
The women, dressed in their beige Emirates uniforms topped off with red pillbox caps, presented the German athletes with gold medals on silver trays -- a not-so-subtle display of the big bets the airline and its rivals are making on soccer.
The Dubai carrier’s sponsorship of the World Cup tournament cost about $100 million over four years, according to consultancy Brand Finance. That gave it the chance to place its flight attendants in countless images of the winning team, underscoring the company’s evolution over the past three decades from an upstart in a desert monarchy to the world’s largest airline by international traffic.
“Credit to Emirates,” said Dave Chattaway, an analyst at Brand Finance in London. The World Cup deal was “a very clever marketing move. A lot of other Middle East airlines are kicking themselves.”
Emirates is also a leading sponsor of European club soccer. The airline has paid to place “Fly Emirates” on the jerseys of Champion’s League winner Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, FC Arsenal and AC Milan -- four of Europe’s top 10 clubs by revenue. The 150 million pounds ($257 million) Emirates is paying Arsenal for five years is more than five times the entire sponsorship budget of Deutsche Lufthansa AG.
That’s a blow to Lufthansa, since four of the newly-crowned champions -- Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Lukas Podolski and Per Mertesacker -- sport the Emirates’ logo in their regular jobs, as does Ezequiel Lavezzi of runner-up Argentina.
Emirates will face a growing challenge in the football limelight as Qatar, home to Gulf competitor Qatar Airways, is scheduled to host the tournament in 2022. Qatar is already a sponsor of FC Barcelona, the club squad of Lionel Messi, the Argentina captain who was named the tournament’s best player. That deal will cost the airline about 30.5 million euros ($41.5 million), according to consultancy Deloitte.
Turkish Airlines has also featured Messi in an ad campaign. And Etihad Airways, based in Abu Dhabi, has paid to emblazon its logo on jerseys worn by players at Manchester City, a deal valued at 400 million pounds over 10 years by the Guardian newspaper. In a January report, Deloitte called that pact “the centerpiece of the club’s commercial success.”
With the Gulf carriers spending so much on soccer, European airlines are scrambling to find lower-budget ways to stay in the game. Air Berlin painted an A320 with a “Fan Force One” livery, and held sweepstakes to win flights to the German team’s group stage games.
Lufthansa has fought back by emphasizing its close ties to Germany’s “Mannschaft.” Chief Executive Officer Carsten Spohr will travel to Berlin on July 15 to greet the team, which is flying home from Rio on a chartered Lufthansa jet.
On Twitter, Lufthansa posted a picture with a stylized World Cup trophy, calling it the “best extra weight we’ve ever carried.” The airline said some 2,500 football-mad customers used an offering on match day to watch the game while on board long-haul flights.
Lufthansa painted eight aircraft with a “Fanhansa” livery, and gave away 50 tickets for a flight from Frankfurt to Brazil to attend the country’s opening match against Portugal. And its low-cost arm, Germanwings, re-painted an aircraft as “Germanwins.”