United pact targets business travelers: ABC/ESPN ads set to air during NFL, PGA events

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United Airlines has inked a one-year deal with ABC Sports and ESPN valued at $20 million, enabling 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" in the fall; a series of Professional Golfers' Assn. events including the U.S. Open and British Open, 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.

Sports broadcasting enables Elk Grove Township-based United to hit business travelers, who account for the bulk of carriers' revenues.

"Airlines want to attract as many business travelers as possible, and that given demographic tends to be male between the ages of 30 and 55, which is the same demographic most likely to watch sports," says analyst Thomas Longman of Arnhold & S. Bleichroeder in New York.

United spent $64 million on advertising 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.

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.

Media Edge of New York serves as United's media-buying agency. Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis continues as 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," John Kiker, United's vice-president of advertising and communications, said last month. "They didn't know how to act differently."

The new effort uses "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 TV creative promoting its Economy Plus coach service. Previous efforts had been only in print. United will continue to roll out new service-oriented creative in upcoming months, Mr. Kiker said.

Crain News Service

Crain's Research Editor Kathleen Schmidt contributed to this report.

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