Continental Airlines Now Flying Rockets: Deal Spotlights Rise In Airline Sports Sponsorships

September 16, 2009: Passengers are flying less and finding the experience more difficult, so airlines are seeking ways to improve their image. In this case, it might be dubbed "On a Ming and a prayer." The NBA's Houston Rockets, whose star player is center Yao Ming, have unveiled a marketing deal making Continental Airlines the "official and exclusive commercial airline" of the team and its home arena, the Toyota Center. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Analysts said that such contracts could run between $5 million-$12 million depending on length and level of marketing activation. The union between the Rockets and Continental includes cooperative advertising, joint marketing, fan promotions and exclusive opportunities for Continental's frequent flyers.

Continental, which has a hub at Houston's George H. Bush Intercontinental Airport, also has marketing deals with the NFL's Houston Texans and MLB's Houston Astros.

Continental said it plans to use the partnership with the Rockets to expand its profile worldwide. In addition to Ming, who is from China, the team's leading players include Luis Scola from Argentina and David Andersen from Australia. Andersen was signed by the Rockets to play center in the absence of seven-time all-star Ming, who had two surgical procedures in July related to a left foot fracture he suffered  during the 2008-09 playoffs. It has not yet been determined when or if Ming would return for the 2009-10 NBA season.

Among the other airlines that have recently stepped up their sports alliances are JetBlue, which this month added the New York Jets to a roster that also includes the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Boston Red Sox and Fenway Park; and American Airlines, which signed a marketing deal with the New England Patriots and Gillette Stadium just before the start of the NFL season and also has alliances with the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Rams.

However, don't expect to see 7-foot-6 Ming and the other Rockets flying alongside passengers on regular flights. Like most teams in the NBA, the Rockets use Northwest Airlines' charter division under a ten-year deal the league signed with the carrier in 2008. Northwest has a fleet of 12 specially designed planes that have been reconfigured to feature first-class seating, leg room and numerous amenities throughout.

"We are very excited to enter into this partnership with Continental Airlines," Tad Brown, CEO of the Rockets and Clutch City Sports & Entertainment, which oversees operation of Toyota Center, said in a statement. "With international stars such as Yao Ming, Luis Scola and David Andersen, Continental is perfectly aligned with our organization's position as an international sports marketing property with a worldwide following in the hundreds of millions."

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