Fans at the New York Knicks’ sold-out, final regular season game this year may have noticed that a new brand was sponsoring the T-shirt toss, its name splashed along the four sides of the scoreboard at Madison Square Garden.
In February, MSC Cruises became the official cruise line of the Knicks, a partnership that coincided with the first MSC ship to homeport year-round from the city, which started in April.
MSC is also among quite a few travel companies that have forged partnerships with sports leagues, teams and events in the past few months alone: Wyndham, with Minor League Baseball; Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) and the Miami Marlins; and South Africa Tourism linking to the Atlanta Hawks, to name a few.
Travel and sports partnerships are not new. Marriott has been the NCAA’s official hotel partner for seven years, and 2022 marked Emirates’ 11th year as the official airline of the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Allegiant scored naming rights for the Las Vegas Raiders stadium in 2019.
But the number of such partnerships is growing, as is travel company ad spend during live sporting events.
According to an analysis by TV measurement company iSpot, travel industry advertising during live sports rose from $170 million with 8 billion household TV ad impressions in 2021 to $404.9 million with 14.3 billion household TV ad impressions in 2022.
Travel websites (34.8%) were the top spender on ads during sports, followed by airlines (21.8%), cruise lines (18.3%), hotels (14%), cities and destinations (7.4%) and resorts and theme parks (3.9%). Through April 15 of this year, Royal Caribbean Group was the top travel company spender on ads during live sports.
“Travel was one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, and those brands have spent recent years rolling out new campaigns to consumers eager to return to vacationing,” said Cassandra Arora, chief marketing officer at iSpot. “Since mid-2021, travel brands have been making greater investments in the broad reach of live sporting events on TV to maximize the audience for these messages.”
Building on team loyalty
As the advertising landscape has evolved over the past decade, the value of sports partnerships has risen to the top.
“Live sports drive television and advertising value these days,” said Jordan Bloem, senior vice president of client strategy for Navigate, a sports and entertainment consulting agency. “It’s the only DVR-proof content. If you look at the 100 top-rated broadcasts each year, 96 of them are sports. It has huge viewership, and people are focused while they’re watching, so it’s hard to miss the brands that show up.”
Beyond that, as marketing and advertising come at consumers from new and sometimes unverified sources, people still trust their favorite teams and the brands around them.
“Sports sponsorship tends to break through traditional advertising clutter,” Bloem said. “Relative to a traditional ad you might see online, or a spot during a TV show, seeing that brand next to the logo of the team they support — an affiliation that fans are passionate about — creates a halo effect.”
‘Sports sponsorship breaks through traditional advertising clutter.’
Team loyalty was cited as a key factor among all the travel executives interviewed for this story.
“At its core, it’s about reaching the right audience,” said Suzanne Salas, MSC’s senior vice president of marketing and e-commerce. “We know Knicks fans are extremely passionate, extremely engaged. Then they see an MSC Cruises logo or they get an email from Madison Square Garden highlighting MSC and there is an automatic credibility factor there.”
Sarah Lipton, vice president of brand marketing for Marriott International, said Courtyard by Marriott’s 13-year run as the NFL’s official hotel partner “is a differentiator,” with research showing that those aware of its position are “much more likely to consider the brand for their next stay and have elevated perceptions of the brand.”
Salas said that for MSC and the Knicks, the partnership is holistic and that while live branding in the arena offers high visibility and reach, “I’m not going to get someone to opt into an email when they’re looking at live branding. That will come via a different mechanism. It’s all those things that, holistically, we think make up a strong partnership.”
MSC’s decision to partner with the Knicks was also a way for the brand to plant its flag at its newest homeport.
“Our goal is to build brand awareness, consideration and relevancy in this market,” Salas said. “We went down this path to explore various sports partnerships, and the Knicks were chosen for many reasons. One is that they’re the most valuable team in the NBA. Their audience is so large, and Madison Square Garden is this mecca in New York City. We saw that our target audience over-indexes with Knicks fans.”
‘Our goal is to build brand awareness and relevancy.’
The local market was also top of mind for Norwegian when it entered a partnership with the Marlins.
“The cruise capital of the world is our backyard, so it was a natural synergy to collaborate with the Miami Marlins while also targeting the Latin America market,” said Adam Malone, chief marketing officer at NCL. He said the line will host brand activations during eight of the Marlins’ Hispanic Heritage Nights. “Additionally, we are broadening our exposure and awareness to passionate baseball fans from other cities around the country.”
Matt Traub, managing editor of SportsTravel magazine, said that when Allegiant bought the naming rights for the Raiders’ stadium, they were also targeting the local customer base. But they ended up getting much more than that when, in 2021, the stadium was named host of the 2024 Super Bowl.
“They knew going in that it would be a great marketing play, having their name on an NFL stadium, but now you have the Super Bowl coming in,” Traub said. “The ROI and the number of times that it’s mentioned as being Allegiant Stadium is extraordinarily valuable for that airline, especially knowing how much of their operations is based in Vegas.”
Such partnerships also lend themselves to experiences, something especially important to travel brands.
This is true for Courtyard, which hosted an event for loyalty members to watch the NFL draft from the Courtyard VIP Fan Zone within Kansas City’s Union Station, where the draft took place.
“The partnership provides Courtyard with opportunities to be front-and-center, engaging with fans throughout the season at key tent pole moments,” Lipton said, adding that those might be NFL events or in-hotel offerings on game days.
Physically being at these events enables Courtyard “to build that sense of trust and awareness to turn it into conversion,” Lipton added.
The Courtyard NFL draft play is part of Marriott Bonvoy’s Moments program, which enables members to use loyalty points for entree into exclusive experiences. Sports Moments are prominently featured on the Bonvoy site, with packages including experiences such as box seats for a Chicago Cubs game or an overnight stay on the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team yacht during the Monaco Grand Prix.
The company created 42 different packages for the NCAA March Madness tournament, which, in sum, received 1,155 bids. A Moments option at the NCAA Final Four in Houston, for example, included access to a suite at the mens’ games and a tour of NRG Stadium with a chance to shoot hoops on the court; individual participants bid a million points or more for the opportunity.
Boston's Hotel Commonwealth, the official hotel of Major League Baseball's Red Sox, shows how much can be accomplished at the intersection of sports fandom and hospitality.
For Emirates, its U.S. Open partnership means hosting VIPs, including top-producing travel advisors, at its center court suite in Arthur Ashe Stadium. All ticket holders can stop by the Emirates booth to try out its premium economy seats on display. And perhaps they’ll get lucky during the Emirates Ball Flight, when members of the cabin crew stand courtside with the Open’s winner, who hits three autographed balls into the stands.
‘When fans attend a game, their enthusiasm is through the roof. To capture them in that mindset provides a different level of awareness.’
And all of these brands, including NCL, which benefits from its partnership with the Marlins through brand activations (including cruise giveaways) throughout the baseball season, is reaching people who are having fun.
“When fans attend a sports game, their enthusiasm is through the roof,” said NCL’s Malone. “To capture them in that mindset provides a different level of awareness for us.”
Playing into the family market
Given the high level of youth sports participation in the U.S., partnerships with their leagues can help a brand penetrate the family travel market, said SportsTravel magazine’s Traub.
“Youth sports is a bigger market nationally in the U.S. even than the NFL in terms of revenue generation,” he said. “So, given the number of families and kids that travel for an extended weekend, to be the place where the youth sports team stays — having that tie-in with a tournament organizer or a travel planner — is a valuable play for hotel chains.”
That market was on MSC’s mind when it hosted a Junior Knicks clinic on the basketball court aboard the MSC Meraviglia, its New York-based ship, during its inaugural call last month. Participants took part in basketball drills and games run by the Junior Knicks coaching staff, had a chance to meet Knicks legends including Walt Frazier and John Starks and received branded giveaways from the Knicks and MSC.
Family is also a big consideration in the Wyndham-
Minor League Baseball partnership, said Uzma Rawn, senior vice president of global corporate partnerships for Major League Baseball.
“We do pride ourselves on being the most affordable family sports outing,” she said of Minor League Baseball, adding that Wyndham also “offers affordability and accessibility … so we really felt like we had some strong brand synergies between MiLB and Wyndham.”
And while Wyndham guests could have access to “once-in-a-lifetime experiences” like throwing out the first pitch in a game or watching batting practice, Rawn said the value goes both ways.
“Wyndham is one of the largest hotel companies in the world, which means whenever our MiLB fans are traveling, a Wyndham will be there,” she said. “There is literally a Wyndham property less than or close to 10 miles away from every MiLB property.”
Rebecca Tobin contributed to this story.