United flies high with ABC/ESPN

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United Airlines has inked a one-year deal with ABC Sports and ESPN valued at $20 million, allowing the airline to run ads across a range of the networks' prime properties.

Those include ABC's "NFL Monday Night Football" and ESPN's "Sunday Night Football" this fall; a series of Professional Golfers' Association events including the U.S. Open and British Open that run for two days on ESPN and two more on ABC; and various editions of ESPN's flagship "SportsCenter." Ads will appear during some of the most expensive time slots "SportsCenter" offers -- such as shows that directly follow live events.

Separately, United plans to advertise during the NCAA "Final Four" basketball tournament on CBS in March.

Sports broadcasting allows United to hit business travelers, who account for the bulk of an airline's revenue. "Sports skews high for our key traveler," said John Kiker, VP-advertising and communications for United.

MAJOR BUDGET COMMITMENT

United spent $64 million in measured media through the first 10 months last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting, so the ESPN/ABC pact represents a significant portion of its ad budget.

The deal does allow United the opportunity to pursue branded segments or features on ESPN and ABC Sports programming, though none has been agreed to yet, according to Mr. Kiker.

Like other multipurpose media companies, ESPN/ ABC offers advertisers the chance to craft a message across different media that include TV, radio (ESPN Radio), Internet (ESPN.com) and print (ESPN the Magazine). Though the United deal includes only TV, Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN/ABC Sports customer marketing and sales, hopes the relationship will expand to other platforms in the future.

The Media Edge, New York, serves as United's media-buying agency. Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, remains United's creative shop.

United was said to be disappointed with Fallon because its "Rising" campaign failed to inspire employees and generate consumer enthusiasm. But the airline used the agency to launch its successor campaign last month on ABC's broadcasts of first-round National Football League playoff games.

"The only frustration we had with [`Rising'] is it didn't quite work with our employees," Mr. Kiker said last month. "They didn't know how to act differently."

The new effort uses the airline's name, United, as its tagline and focuses on an airline's role in bringing people together for business and pleasure.

Later this month, United will roll out new creative promoting its Economy Plus coach-class service on TV. Previous efforts had only been in print. United will continue to roll out new service-oriented creative in upcoming months, Mr. Kiker said.

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