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For Etihad And Its CEO, Sports Sponsorships Underscore a Drive To Win

What do start-up airlines and U.S. professional soccer teams have in common?  Some might say a history of losses and failures.

That might not be the case this time around.  Taking a night off from the bare-knuckled battles of the global commercial aviation industry, Etihad Airways CEO James Hogan (pictured below) arrived in New York to launch the airline’s first major North American sponsorship, the start-up New York City Football Club, which will play home games at Yankee Stadium.

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With CBS Sports anchor Allie LaForce presiding, Hogan received a powder blue jersey with his name on the back and his airline’s logo emblazoned on the front. The airline boss told a group of New York media and travel agents gathered at Central Park’s Boat House that his sports sponsorship strategy underscores his belief that in business and on the pitch, and from the field to the race track, “it’s all about winning.” It’s a sentiment that should resonate with elite travelers.

The United Arab Emirates-based airline generated attention in 2009 for its title sponsorship of the F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and its clever promotion of the event, which included painting one of its A340s in racing colors complete with a checkered flag pattern on the tail. Etihad is also the main sponsor of the Manchester City Football Club, which includes stadium naming. Additonally, the Etihad name adorns Melbourne’s premier multi-purpose sports and entertainment stadium. These high profile global sponsorships highlight that even though the carrier’s first flight took place only eleven years ago, it now boasts a fleet of over 100 jets with 200 more on order, with a network spanning six continents. Within the United States, in addition to its now double daily flights from New York JFK to Abu Dhabi, Etihad flies to Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C., with flights to San Francisco and Dallas coming soon.

James Hogan’s managerial career in the aviation industry has been marked by exceeding expectations at the helm of airlines that were seriously outmatched. He led British Midland against British Airways, Ansett against Qantas, and Gulf Air against Emirates before becoming the Etihad chief in 2006.

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Long known for his focus on service and innovative products and approaches, it looks like Hogan’s Etihad may now be making a championship run.  With the financial power of Abu Dhabi behind him (similarly, his soccer partners are backed by the deep pockets of the New York Yankees and Manchester City), Hogan has rolled out everything from in-flight nannies to the buzz-worthy Residence aboard its Airbus A380s. In an era when many airlines are squeezing in more seats and taking away comfort, The Residence’s separate bedroom, living room and en suite shower cleverly took advantage of space where other airlines would commonly place toilets or even leave unused. Its standard First and Business class products have racked up recognition as well. Like a good manager, Hogan passes the credit to his team, calling his employees his “secret weapon.”

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While Etihad has been enjoying a tail wind of good publicity, its future will surely entail further battles. In October, the German government threw a yellow card at Etihad for withholding code-sharing rights between Airberlin and Etihad on certain routes before reversing course. There’s also the airline’s strategy of taking equity stakes in strategic partners to increase its network, a tactic not easily accomplished. Current members of the family include Aer Lingus, Airberlin, Air Serbia, Air Seychelles, Jet Airways and Virgin Australia. Turning the group into a well-oiled, full-fledged alliance is still in the offing. 

The next match may be the biggest of Hogan’s career. The airline is expected to win EU approval to buy 49 percent of Italy’s loss-making Alitalia for a reported $2.2 billion. The Rome-based airline has been such a basket case that there is even a dedicated Wikipedia page headlined “Financial Situation at Alitalia.” A previous CEO once testified that he didn’t know how much money the airline was losing.

“Sports is in our DNA,” said the ever-competitive Hogan told New York soccer fans eager for a win for their fledgling football club. If he can turn around the Italian laggard, he may go down as an airline industry hall-of-famer. As native New Yorker and Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi might have advised the Etihad boss: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Lombardi, as it happens, started his professional career coaching the then Yankee Stadium-based New York Giants, where James Hogan sealed the deal on his new sponsorship earlier in the afternoon.