Emirates adds Roland Garros to global sponsorship drive

PARIS (REUTERS) - Emirates airline has added Roland Garros tennis to a spending spree on high-profile sports sponsorships, a strategy aimed at leapfrogging its rivals for global attention.

The Dubai-based carrier said it would sponsor the French grand slam tournament starting with the upcoming event in May.

The airline is also on the verge of announcing a deal to sponsor the shirts of soccer team Real Madrid, a person familiar with the matter said.

Media reports have pegged the shirt rights for one of the sport's biggest brands at 30 million euros (S$48.6 million).

Forbes magazine said in its annual ranking of the value of soccer teams on Wednesday that Real Madrid, at US$3.3 billion (S$4.1 billion), had knocked Manchester United from top place for the first time.

Emirates declined to comment on its talks with Real Madrid, who have been European champions nine times, more than any other club.

Dubai's carrier has led the field in opening up global sports packages to the generally cash-pinched airline sector as it attempts to redraw the long-haul route map around the Gulf.

It was the first airline to sponsor the Fifa soccer World Cup and spent an estimated US$200 million on an eight-year deal up to 2014, but has criticised the soccer's international ruling body over its record in tackling corruption scandals.

The cost of the Roland Garros partnership, which will give Emirates display rights on centre court and other locations, was not disclosed but the French Tennis Federation said it exceeded its minimum tariff of 3 million euros.

Emirates' interest in international sports reflects its strategy of penetrating markets globally and drawing long-haul traffic through its hub in Dubai, an approach which has placed it on a collision course with European and other carriers.

"As a global brand we are interested in these kinds of sports which are borderless," the airline's president, Mr Tim Clark, said on Wednesday.

Other partnerships include a recently extended stadium and shirt sponsorship with Arsenal and another shirt sponsorship deal at Paris St Germain, which it renewed weeks before the French team signed David Beckham, one of soccer's superstars.

"Beckham is like Roger Federer. He has transcended football just as Federer has transcended tennis," Mr Clark said in a recent interview. "These people are global brands in their own right."

Emirates declines to say how much money it spends a year on sponsorship, which also includes cricket - hugely popular in key markets opening up to aviation such as India - and rugby.

But the airline's chairman, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, said when unveiling a branding deal with Formula One motor racing in February that its total sports sponsorship stood at 1 billion dirhams (S$337 million) this year.

With deeper pockets than many struggling legacy carriers, Emirates has led the airline business into mass-audience, sport-wide partnerships previously dominated by soft drinks, sports clothing, financial services and, in the past, tobacco.

It is a different approach from that followed by many airlines, which traditionally focus on advertising.

"Sponsorship offers you something advertising doesn't do - exclusivity," said Mr Boutros Boutros, Emirates' senior vice-president for corporate communications.

Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways sponsors English soccer champions Manchester City, while Barcelona will have the Qatar Airways name on their shirts for next season after long eschewing corporate branding.