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Volume 21 No. 1

Marketing and Sponsorship

Goodyear Tire & Rubber began building blimps in 1912, but its rise to being synonymous with major sporting events began on New Year’s Day 1955, when live footage from its Enterprise airship was integrated into NBC’s coverage of the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif. It was the first time a live signal from an aircraft was broadcast across the country.

Goodyear’s blimp division has three hangars and 70 full-time employees.

It also stands as a watershed moment in advertising history. Both Goodyear and the network were pleased with the positive exposure, but it was the simplicity of the business model that delighted both sides the most: No money changed hands.

Six decades later, Goodyear this summer is poised to launch a newly styled airship that will be more sleek in appearance, brighter in its displays, and quieter for crew members and the ships’ lucky few passengers. But that

corporate/branding relationship? Well, 60 years later, it’s almost as streamlined now as it was back then.

“It is probably the most symbiotic relationship in advertising,” said Scott Rogers, Goodyear’s chief marketing officer.

When it comes to blimps, there’s an unmistakable visual allure. These airships instantly convey to fans on the ground and watching on TV that “This must be a big event.” But there’s a business involved with blimps, as well. That business, like any, involves multiple parties, discussions of ROI, and a need to keep up with developing technologies. Yet how it all ties together, Rogers said, couldn’t be easier to describe. Producers and directors get aerial shots for their broadcasts; their network bosses love the fact that someone else (the blimp owner and sponsor) is footing the bill; and the brand reps whose logos adorn the blimps get the exposure that comes from being seen at and integrated into the coverage of an event.

Business of Blimps

Snoopy’s view: Writer David Broughton (above) takes a ride in MetLife’s Snoopy One airship.

Notable moments in blimp history


On assignment, and getting some air time: 

Broughton's day aboard the Goodyear Spirit of Innovation airship in Florida.
 A closer look at the Zeppelin model that Goodyear is launching this summer
 Airships: Not your traditional media buy
Blimp became an MVP in earthquake coverage.
Here’s how it all comes together: The blimp’s sponsor for a particular airship event appearance covers the blimp-related expenses, such as the traveling crew (which usually numbers more than a dozen people) and multiple support vehicles. The network that is broadcasting the particular event usually facilitates the handling of the necessary paperwork required by the Federal Aviation Administration. But the network notably also provides to the blimp company and sponsor a type of currency in the form of a blimp “pop,” a once-per-hour on-screen graphic paired with an audio mention acknowledging the eye in the sky.

“It’s an old model, but it really works,” said Tom Gianakos, ESPN’s director of remote operations, who has been at the network for 34 years and coordinating aerial coverage since 2002.

The people on the other side of the relationship see shared benefits as well.

“Whether it’s an open stadium or a closed arena, the fact is the beauty shots have become a permanent part of the sports broadcast landscape,” said John Haegele, CEO of blimp owner/operator Van Wagner Airship Group.

When it comes to prioritizing at which events blimp operators appear, the companies look at the multiple expenses involved and the potential returns before making their decisions.

“This isn’t just a billboard on a stadium wall, or a cute little feature we’re slapping inside a game broadcast,” said Jeff Gagne, senior vice president of strategic investments at Boston-based Havas Media, which serves as Goodyear’s media buyer for both blimp and non-blimp deals. “The presence of a blimp in a broadcast requires the expense of paying a crew to travel; coordination between the producers and the talent and the blimp crew; fuel for the blimp and overnight rental fees at airports along the way; producing graphics; and so many other things that aren’t associated with a traditional ad.”

Those travel costs, according to the people involved, usually come in around $5,000 per day — which is why in the past few years the two major players competing for airspace at U.S. sports events, Goodyear and Van Wagner Airship Group, have been upgrading their respective technologies to deliver the most value to networks and fans.

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Goodyear’s blimp business consists of a hangar in Pompano Beach, Fla., 25 miles north of downtown Miami; one in Carson, Calif., 13 miles south of Los Angeles; and another in Akron, Ohio, near the company’s corporate headquarters. Its 14-year-old Spirit of Goodyear ship was retired after flying over this year’s Daytona 500 and will be replaced this summer by one of the new, Zeppelin model ships. The company’s blimp division features approximately 70 full-time employees, including 12 pilots, who combine to cover about 250 sporting events each year.

For Goodyear, the blimp provides the company with its most visible presence in sports. Goodyear has spent an average of about $20 million annually over the past three years advertising during televised sports broadcasts, according to Nielsen, well below the level of sports’ 100 biggest spenders. The company’s only league sponsorship deal is its 15-year status as NASCAR’s official tire. The fact that Goodyear blimps cover about a half-dozen Sprint Cup Series races each year draws not from that deal but rather from discussions about which events are most beneficial for a Goodyear blimp to attend.

Orlando-based Van Wagner Airship Group owns and operates eight of the approximately 13 active advertising blimps in the world. Its branded fleet includes DirecTV’s blimp, MetLife’s three Snoopy-themed airships, and a blimp leased by the HP Hood dairy brand that floats around New England during the summer. The balance of its fleet is represented by ships available for rental by sponsors, and others in various stages of maintenance or certification. The group’s parent company, Van Wagner Communications, is one of the largest outdoor advertising companies in the United States and works with nearly 200 sports clients. The airship group took hold with its September 2012 acquisition of blimp maker American Blimp Corp. and affiliated blimp operating company The Lightship Group.

Whereas Goodyear owns and operates its own branded blimps, Van Wagner owns the airships and leases them to its partner companies: DirecTV, MetLife and HP Hood. The contract terms vary by partner.

When the DirecTV ship launched in 2007, it did so as the first blimp with a video board, and that technology was significantly upgraded earlier this year. The new display allows networks to share replay footage, offer live interaction with fans, and provide DirecTV’s partners an additional medium to advertise. For example, the company, as an NFL media rights holder, could show NFL Red Zone footage on the side of the blimp. Other network partners could use the board to promote their own upcoming shows.

Jon Gieselman, DirecTV senior vice president of marketing, declined to specify how much the company spends annually on its blimp business but said the return on its investment is about 2-to-1 or 3-to-1. The blimp, nicknamed “Lefty” following a fan contest, covers about 100 sports events per year in the eastern part of the United States.

As for MetLife, its blimp business began in 1987, and its model is one that has evolved into a slightly different form than that of Goodyear or DirecTV. Its Snoopy One blimp covers East Coast events; Snoopy Two does the same out West for a combined total of approximately 110 U.S. sports events per year. A third Snoopy ship flies in Japan.

What’s unique for MetLife is that the company has a relationship with the PGA Tour as its official aerial provider. Richard Hong, MetLife vice president of global brand management, advertising and promotions, said the decision in 2007 to take on that official partnership — after years of simply showing up on behalf of television networks — was a key part of the company’s strategy to increase its brand awareness in the more than 40 countries where it operates.

“The PGA is a worldwide property, and this ensures that our footage and brand exposure do not get scrubbed out of any international broadcasts,” Hong said. “This is brand integration at the most essential level. We feel that we have become so integral to golf broadcasts that fans would miss us if we weren’t there.”

Hong said the company tracks its golf exposure carefully and said its blimp program delivers four times the value of what it invests. He said although the majority of the sports coverage provided by the Snoopy blimps is golf-related, a MetLife blimp was present near at least one NFL game each weekend last season, and the ships have had a longtime presence at Triple Crown races as well.

MetLife’s ships don’t have permanent homes, so blimps and crew are always traveling.

“We know we don’t have the ad budget that the other guys have in sports, but with the return we are getting, we really feel like we are punching above our weight,” Hong said.

Rob Ohno, senior vice president of corporate marketing at the PGA Tour, said MetLife’s longtime presence above golf events helped establish the rapport that led to the four-year deal signed last summer that gives the brand status as the PGA Tour’s official insurance company. That deals stands separate from MetLife’s official aerial provider deal with the tour, but as things ultimately play out, the arrangements work together.

“With the MetLife blimp fully integrated into the broadcasts, our fans view the insurance sponsorship as authentic, not forced,” Ohno said. “Can you imagine not having that aerial coverage now?”

Footage from the MetLife blimps makes up an average of 10 percent of a network’s live coverage, according to the company.

And then there’s the blimp of HP Hood, a dairy company based in Lynnfield, Mass. Its Van Wagner-owned airship has spent the past 18 summers hovering above Boston Red Sox games on behalf of NESN, as well as at other New England-based events. Despite being in the air only 10 weeks a year, the blimp has a high recognition rate in the market, according to Lynne Bohan, HP Hood vice president of communications and government affairs. Van Wagner leases the ship to the company just for the summer, then flies it down to a maintenance hangar at Smyrna (Tenn.) Airport, removes the branding, and makes it available to other companies for the rest of the year.

Van Wagner can produce banners that wrap around a blimp in three weeks.

Van Wagner’s Haegele uses the HP Hood example to say there is definitely a misperception in the advertising world that a blimp activation involves a long-term commitment.

“If you just have something that you want to make a lot of noise about, you can do it in a one-month blimp promotion that is at the same price point as buying a one-month Times Square billboard,” he said. “And you can be a lot more flexible about who sees it.”

While he did not provide specifics on short-term or long-term blimp leases, he did say that because Van Wagner operates multiple signs in Times Square, it’s a comparison he can aptly offer to clients.

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So what about those costs? And how are the associated companies’ returns calculated?

None of the blimp operators would say how much a blimp lease costs, but what is clear is that the pricing can vary across a wide range. Travel costs, time of year, and generated media value all play a role, and those vary by market and event.

For a technology that’s been around for decades, the blimp operators believe the ships really help break through the advertising clutter like no other medium can. After all, they ask, when was the last time you took a picture of an advertisement at a ballpark and posted it on a social media site?

But for all the exposure gains for the blimp brands and for the cities that host the games, those blimp brands seldom have activation on the ground tied in to the events they are covering, and that lack of on-the-ground activity can lead to a lack of exclusivity. For example, blimps not named Snoopy are called in to provide PGA Tour network partners with aerial coverage of the Farmers Insurance Open, the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance, the Travelers Championship, and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. Additionally, Goodyear will hover above approximately 25 MLB games this year even though competitor Firestone is the league’s official tire.

One of those games was the Miami Marlins’ season-opening game, which was broadcast by ESPN2. The network’s coverage included two Firestone commercials along with a post-commercial Firestone graphic that coincided with the game’s announcer, Steve Levy, saying that one of the broadcast’s partners was Firestone. Ironically, Goodyear’s blimp-provided shots of the Miami skyline provided the backdrop for that nine-second Firestone exposure. But less than six minutes later, a 22-second animated Goodyear graphic called Heavy Hitters — the first blimp “pop” of the night — appeared. With another blimp-provided ballpark shot, Levy touted Goodyear tires’ “superior performance” and gave a shout out to the blimp’s crew (“Mandy and Jorge: Great work and some pretty pictures”). The network used live blimp footage 16 times during the broadcast, and the Goodyear logo received 46 seconds of on-screen exposure.

For its part, DirecTV has had a long relationship with NASCAR media. It’s part of what led to the blimp earlier this year getting that “Lefty” moniker: “The blimp is like a Sprint Cup Series car,” Gieselman said. “Constantly turning left, just at a slightly reduced speed.” DirecTV is not a NASCAR rights holder, but the peaceful coexistence blimps have with networks means the ship will provide views from above at six events this season.

A NASCAR spokesman said the property does not monitor the amount of footage provided by the blimps, nor how much brand exposure those ships receive.

Another challenge acknowledged by everyone on the business side of blimp operations is figuring out how to build the bridge from blimp awareness to actual purchases of their product. In January, Goodyear commissioned a nationwide phone survey to gauge interest in its program. The result: 95 percent of the 352 respondents were “aware” of the Goodyear blimp, and 52 percent said they enjoyed an event more when the Goodyear blimp was present.

“But at the end of the day, we are a tire company, and sales are important,” Rogers said. “We hope that the technological advancements that we are making with blimps drive home that Goodyear is an innovative company.”

But blimp workers, from pilots to marketing executives, say that while the sports coverage provides the exposure, it’s the charity work that provides the most internal ROI.


Quantifying the value derived from a blimp's exposure is challenging. However, between television viewers, on-site attendees and the general population near a targeted game's stadium, more than 21 million people (allowing for some overlaps) had the potential of seeing a blimp covering an MLB game on the season's opening days.

Sunday, March 30 (8 p.m.) Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Goodyear ESPN 2,279,000 11,924,124 45,567 14,248,691 Goodyear having a home base in the country’s second-biggest media market always helps generate exposure.
Monday, March 31 (7 p.m.) Colorado at Miami Goodyear ESPN2,
Fox Sports Florida
735,000 1,017,019 37,116 1,789,135 Marlins’ viewership on Fox Sports Florida, which used ESPN’s national feed, was up 78 percent over Opening Day 2013. In addition, the Miami Heat was playing a home game a few miles away the same evening, giving the blimp a double dose of sports fans who might be looking up at the South Florida sky.
Monday, March 31 (4 p.m.) Toronto at Tampa Bay DirecTV Sun Sports 103,000 5,100,000 31,042 5,234,042 Viewership for the Rays’ opener was up 19 percent over Opening Day 2013. The ship also hovered above the city’s Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone St. Petersburg Grand Prix the day before.
TOTALS 3,117,000 18,041,143 113,725 21,271,868  

* Combined local and national viewers
Note: Goodyear’s Spirit of America was scheduled to provide ESPN with additional aerial footage on March 31 from above Angel Stadium of Anaheim for the Seattle-Los Angeles Angels matchup, but excessive winds prevented the ship from launching. The combined total of people who potentially could have seen that blimp was 11.3 million (857,000 on TV, 44,152 at the ballpark, 10.4 million below the ship’s flight path).
Sources: Nielsen, networks,, U.S. Census data released July 2013

SportsBusiness Journal’s David Broughton had an opportunity to ride along in Goodyear’s Spirit of Innovation blimp this spring. The setting: The season opener for the Miami Marlins, a game that featured a national TV broadcast on ESPN2. As part of the blimp crew for the night, Broughton was required to submit to Goodyear his name, Social Security number, driver’s license number and city of birth one month prior to the flight, with that information passed along for screening by the Transportation Security Administration. After that, with clearance in hand, it was time for his ride. Click here for a slideshow of Broughton’s day aboard the Spirit of Innovation.

Goodyear cameraman Jorge Bernal stands at the controls, to gets shots of the Miami Marlins’ season opener.

3:30 p.m.: I arrive at Goodyear’s facility at Pompano Beach (Fla.) Airpark. It’s an unassuming building at the local, six-runway airport, with a chain link fence (I had to be buzzed in) and a massive hangar. But if it weren’t for the sign out front that says “Blimp Base,” you’d never know it houses one of sports’ most iconic objects.

While waiting for the day’s flight crew to finish its pre-flight meeting, I spend time with Donna Calderone, the Goodyear

spokeswoman at the base. Her phone rings often, and the conversation usually goes like this: “Yes, we are. … Hopefully around 4:30. … No, I’m sorry sweetie, you can’t today. But you are welcome to come and watch it from outside the fence.”

Calderone says the local hotel concierge frequently sends people over to watch from outside the facility. She also confirms something I had heard about before making my trip: the existence of the Helium Heads, a group of folks, largely retired military personnel, who like to drop by as if the base were a barber shop, just to talk about blimps.

With that kind of buzz for blimps, I ask her about the prospect of charging people for individual, passenger trips. Her reply: Goodyear employees from the very top to the very bottom learn early what exactly the program means to the company — and it’s not about making money.

“They could make a fortune charging folks for rides,” she says. “We did almost 1,500 rides last year, mostly for charities. This base helped raise almost $250,000 last year. But when you see what it means to those kids and those families, then you understand.”

She then introduces me to Corky Belanger, chief pilot at the base.

4 p.m.: Belanger escorts me to the hangar and shows me around as the crew prepares the ship.

Belanger has been flying for Goodyear for eight years. His dad also flew for Goodyear, doing so for more than a decade.

Up against the far back wall are the tailfins and now wrapped-up gondola of the recently retired Spirit of Goodyear ship. Belanger says the items are on their way to museums. I ask what happened to the balloon of the ship, and one of the crew members makes slashing motions, indicating they had sliced it up.

Also within sight are the vehicles for the travel crew: a bus, a nine-passenger van, and a 40-foot specially outfitted tractor-trailer rig.

4:30 p.m.: A John Deere tractor tows the massive mast attached to the 192-foot-long blimp out into the Florida afternoon. Several cars have parked outside the fence to watch the show.

I meet Mandy Martin, Spirit of Innovation’s senior pilot, who will be my tour guide for the next several hours. Martin received her Goodyear wings almost three years ago to the day and is one of three female Goodyear blimp pilots.

Sandbags are loaded in the cargo space beneath the gondola to help with weight balancing in the airship.

4:40 p.m.: Goodyear cameraman Jorge Bernal boards the blimp to make sure the camera and its controls are in working order, and I climb aboard a moment later. I take the seat to the right of the pilot. The cabin’s middle passenger bench has been removed to make room for the camera and the 450 pounds of rigging and equipment that go with it.

With the engines running, I watch through my open window the final phases of the preflight process. While members of the ground crew pull long ropes on either side of the ship’s nose to keep us from blowing away, their teammates load small sandbags into the cargo space beneath the gondola. Monitoring the weight, balance and center of gravity is important in any aircraft, but even more so in a vessel that is lighter than air.

5:02 p.m.: Liftoff.

As we ascend, crew members on the ground race to the sides of the ship, looking to attach the mooring ropes to each side of the blimp. The ropes are too long to just let hang free during flight because they could potentially ruin the camera view from the blimp, so they need to be fastened to the sides.

I can hear light-hearted ribbing from the ground crew members about who hooked his rope first.

We proceed to cruise south, about 900 feet above the coastline. Martin says we have a good tailwind, which is pushing us to a whopping (by blimp standards) 48 miles per hour. That means our 35-mile trip should take about an hour.

Martin spent nine years in the U.S. Air Force. She then flew blimps for MetLife on the West Coast and a since-deactivated blimp for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield in New Jersey for three years before joining Goodyear’s team. She had applied online for a position that simply said there was an opening to work on the “lightship aerial crew.” A couple weeks later, she got a call asking her if she was still interested in flying a blimp. She says she had no idea it was for a blimp.

The Cineflex camera provides a 360-degree view.

“But it would be tough to fly anything else, now,” she says, looking to her left at the ocean.

5:26 p.m.: Bernal cranks the $250,000 Cineflex camera down eight feet, low enough so that none of the ship is obstructing its 360-degree view.

We fly directly over a paraglider.

5:57 p.m.: We arrive at Marlins Park.

6:02 p.m.: We are linked live with the ESPN truck on site. We can hear Matt Lipp, ESPN’s producer who’ll be running point for tonight’s game, but he can’t hear us. We can also hear constant chatter from air traffic control at Miami International Airport, which is just four miles away. Martin adjusts the headsets so that only she can hear the controller. That line of communication remains open throughout the event.

6:04 p.m.: Lipp announces to his crew setting up in the ballpark, “Hey! The blimp’s here, guys!” He immediately asks Martin to “push to the stadium” and asks Bernal what other shots he can get. We spend the next hour doing laps and searching for shots while the ESPN crew is piecing together its opening sequence that will air at 7 p.m.

“We like being used,” Martin says about the conversation with Lipp. “He sounds like he’ll use us. Sometimes, we’ll be at an event for four hours and never get used.”

“Mandy, I want you to get right down on top of the stadium,” Lipp says, just seconds later.

6:58 p.m.: Lipp and his crew finish editing the introduction, and he does a sort of roll call, wishing everyone, including Bernal, a great game.

At that moment, I may have broken some journalistic ethics. Or some blimp rules. Or maybe both. I pull out three chocolate chip cookies I had bought earlier at the Subway down the street from the base.

“Are you kidding me? No one’s ever brought us food before!” Bernal exclaims.

For the record, Martin, who is a CrossFit trainer, resisted. For about 30 seconds.

7:02 p.m.: I learn quickly that while blimps are slow, they can’t stay in one spot. Lipp asks us to zoom in on the crowd on the right field Budweiser Balcony for the broadcast’s opening “bump.” This would be the first of several times he asks for a shot, tells us it’s perfect, then says “OK. Stay there.”

The Miami Heat was playing at AmericanAirlines Arena the same time of the Marlins' Opening Night game …

If only it were that simple. Martin can slow and pivot the ship, and Bernal can work to manipulate the camera angles, but ultimately, the blimp remains in motion, so that perfect shot and spot eventually are gone.

7:14 p.m.: With the windows in the blimp open, and the stadium roof open 1,200 feet below, the first pitch is thrown. ESPN uses our footage five times in the first hour. Throughout the game, Martin circles the stadium, often climbing several hundred feet, then turning the ship and descending

… leading to major traffic issues heading to the ballpark.

slowly, allowing Bernal to get long shots from the same angle. Similarly, Bernal is constantly maneuvering the joysticks on the camera’s control panel searching for blimp-worthy shots.

9:16 p.m.: Lipp calls for the first blimp “pop,” realizing he had not run one previously. ESPN announcer Steve Levy says live: “Thanks to Mandy Martin, our pilot tonight, and Jorge Bernal, our cameraman, from high above. Knocking it out of the park.”

10:01 p.m.: Lipp chimes in: “How about that for timing? We got the runner scoring just as we cut to the blimp overhead. Way to go Jorge! Damn, that was nice.”

10:55 p.m.: Game over. Bernal slides a panel on the back wall and empties the reserve fuel tank into the active tank by pulling a small lever. He cranks the camera back up and, using a long shepherd’s hook to reach out the window, detaches the mooring ropes so they will be ready for the crew to grab upon landing.

We head home, opting out of watching the postgame fireworks at the ballpark.

Martin turns off the EagleVision light-display system on the side of the blimp that throughout the trip had been scrolling promotions for Goodyear tires as well as messages from a few of the company’s charity partners, such as The V Foundation.

11:50 p.m.: We arrive back at base and find the ground crew lined up in a “V” formation so as to indicate the direction of the wind at ground level. The blimp lands inside the V.

We’ve burned about 70 gallons of fuel in our seven-hour flight.

Midnight: Martin says she just realized that although they bring passengers up almost daily for quick rides, she’s not sure she’s ever had a passenger for an entire sporting event. As she heads to her post-flight debriefing with the ground crew and to complete the FAA-required paperwork, she says if I bring cookies, I am welcome back any time.

One of television’s most memorable uses of a blimp began on Oct. 17, 1989, at 5:04 p.m. Pacific time. 

Columbia, in the Bay Area for the World Series, provided shots of the 1989 quake.

Goodyear’s Columbia blimp was floating above Candlestick Park, preparing to provide ABC with aerial coverage of Game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s, when a 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit the area. Broadcaster Al Michaels said, “I’ll tell you what: We’re having an earth—.” At that moment, the network’s live feed was momentarily lost. Generators kicked on, and with the microwave link to the blimp above intact, the coverage turned into an around-the-clock newscast in which the airship played a key role.

“I think the blimp actually saved lives that day,” said Curt Gowdy Jr., now with SportsNet New York but who back then was in charge of ABC’s World Series coverage along with director Craig Janoff. “It was the only thing that was flying after the earthquake struck, and it provided dramatic pictures of downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge and the 880 overpass. We put our news hats on and spent days in the truck covering what was not a sporting event, but a news story. [Goodyear’s] Mickey Wittman was front and center with his cameramen and his crew, providing the world compelling pictures.”

— David Broughton

SportsBusiness Journal’s David Broughton had an opportunity to ride along on MetLife’s Snoopy One in late March. The airship was coming to Charlotte for a MetLife corporate appearance, but before it made that trip, it took to the air with Broughton on board, giving him a firsthand look at how the blimp operates. This is his story. Click here for a slideshow of Broughton’s day aboard Snoopy One.

MetLife's Snoopy One Airship is tethered at Gastonia (N.C.) Municipal Airport in March.

I arrived at 8:45 a.m. at Gastonia Municipal Airport, a two-runway facility 10 miles west of Charlotte. It was 36 degrees, unseasonably cold for late March, and the wind was blowing south-southeast about 8 miles per hour.

That’s not a detail I usually notice, or share — but it’s an important one in the blimp business.

Mark Finney, chief pilot with Van Wagner Airship Group, was the man running the show for this trip. Van Wagner owns more blimps (eight) than any other company worldwide, and MetLife’s three Snoopy-named ships are part of that fleet. The affable Brit gave me the warnings that are standard for blimp newcomers. First, he told me about the frequent “thudding” I’d hear coming from the wall behind the seats once aboard. That will be the “elevators,” he said, the pilot-controlled fins that control the blimp’s up and down pitch. Second, although the blimp’s nose is tethered, the blimp never really lands.

“There’s a small step ladder attached to the cabin, but keep your eyes on the steps,” Finney said. “Sometimes, people are so excited that they are getting on a blimp that their eyes are looking up into the cabin.” The risk, he said, is that even the slightest wind can move the giant balloon, leaving you stepping on air.

Snoopy One in-flight pilot Andrew Murray and SportsBusiness Journal's David Broughton in the air over Gastonia, N.C.

In addition to Finney, the 13-man traveling crew consisted of Andrew Murray, who would be the in-flight pilot for this trip, two aircraft mechanics, two crew chiefs and seven ground crew members. The trip’s related vehicle caravan consisted of two Ford F-350s with two trailers (with restrooms) and a small van with a luggage trailer.

Snoopy One does not have a permanent home; it lives outside, tethered when not in flight to a 30-foot-high pole, almost all year.

The team had spent the weekend in Orlando covering the PGA Tour Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard. They spent nearly seven hours traveling 260 miles after that to tether down in Tifton, Ga.

“We were planning on making it a little further [to Ashburn, Ga., 20 miles north], but heard that they only had one bar,” Finney said.

The crew left Tifton Wednesday morning for the 360-mile, 10.5-hour trek to Gastonia. Although Snoopy One had been to Charlotte before (for PGA Tour events), this visit had nothing to do with sports. MetLife wanted Snoopy One in Charlotte on Thursday afternoon for the ribbon-cutting of the new headquarters for its U.S. retail division.

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Having remembered Finney’s warning about the steps, I boarded without incident.

I had been researching the business of blimps for a couple weeks by this point, and the few folks I had talked with who had actually ridden in a blimp did not hesitate to describe the interior of the cabin that I was now seeing for myself. “Spartan” and “like the inside of an old minivan” were two of the more flattering descriptions I had heard, and they pretty much nailed it. My ride for the next couple hours would be in a compartment that measured about 8.5 feet long by 5 feet wide, and about 6.5 feet high.

We put our headsets on to drown out the roughly 110-decibel noise level created by the two 80-horsepower engines, and communicating by hand signals, Murray indicated to his ground crew that we were ready. The crew had already detached the mooring ropes and now began pulling the ship toward the runway.

Murray, my pilot, has been flying for 10 years. He joined Van Wagner Airship Group in 2010 to help develop its new banner-towing base in Los Angeles and then made the transition to airship line pilot in 2012.

The Charlotte skyline, BBT&T Ballpark (left) and Bank of America Stadium

He explained the basics of driving a blimp: The pilot operates paddleboat-like pedals with his feet to move the ship’s rudder for movement left and right. (Murray wears non-slip Skechers work sneakers.) Wheels reminiscent of a pirate ship’s steering device are attached to either side of his seat and are spun forward or backward to push the ship’s nose up or down.

Once in the air, our trip east to Charlotte from Gastonia would take us over the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium and the new BB&T Ballpark, home of the Class AAA Charlotte Knights. At a height of about 1,100 feet and a cruising speed of about 35 miles per hour, I asked Murray what led him to be a blimp pilot rather than a commercial pilot. He smiled and just looked around at the view with his arms spread. He explained that, for him, the length of time it takes to become a tenured pilot and earn the salary that comes with that status doesn’t justify the expense of becoming a pilot.

So, even though he has only been flying blimps for two years, does Van Wagner make it worth his while, I asked.

“They take good care of me,” he smiled, and left it at that.

In fact, throughout the two-hour flight, Murray smiled a lot. It disappeared for a moment when I asked him what sporting event he most enjoyed hovering over. He couldn’t think of one. But then, the smile came back.

“The great thing about this job is I get to share my passion for flying with people who are excited to be here,” he said, almost as if he just realized it. “I like doing sports, but that’s actually work. What is so rewarding, not just for me, for all of us, I think, are the charity rides our company gives.”

After this trip, Snoopy One’s next destination was a charity event in Atlanta, en route to Houston to cover the PGA Tour Shell Houston Open for The Golf Channel and NBC.

■ ■ ■

To get to downtown Charlotte from Gastonia required a trip directly across multiple runways of what the Federal Aviation Administration ranks as the eighth-busiest airport in the country. Murray radioed the air traffic controller at Charlotte Douglas International Airport shortly after we lifted off to request the crossover.

The chatter heard over the headset during the 15 minutes we had to wait to cross was entertaining. (A side note: The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department owns two helicopters. Their names: Snoopy 1 and Snoopy 2, which Murray said makes things a little confusing if there is a controller in the tower who has never dealt with MetLife’s Snoopy blimps before.)

Over Charlotte Douglas International Airport, air traffic control warned incoming jets for the aircraft's presence as it prepared to cross the runways.

The controller warned incoming jets, in air-traffic lingo, that there was an aircraft that would appear to be stationary on everyone’s radar that was waiting to cross the runways and that everyone should maintain visual contact. As everyone acknowledged our presence, every once in a while, a commercial pilot would radio directly to us and ask, “Are you a blimp?”

When we finally received clearance to cross, the controller asked us if we were in town for a sporting event. Murray told him why we were here and that we would need to cross back over in about an hour.

The controller acknowledged our request — and then added, “I want a ride sometime.”

Being in the sports business, we’ve all seen kids, and some adults, get star-struck when meeting a favorite player. When the blimp flies over your neighborhood, we’re all 8 years old again.

We flew over the city and its two stadiums, along with SportsBusiness Journal headquarters and the Charlotte Bobcats’ Time Warner Cable Arena, and then we headed back to Gastonia.

Eventually, Murray decided that the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass in Florida was probably the nicest sports scene he had hovered above. His least favorite? Ironically, MetLife Stadium. Murray said the presence of three major airports near the New York Jets’ and Giants’ stadium means there is too much air traffic and noise to enjoy the experience.

Crossing back over the landscape of the Charlotte airport was easier, and shortly after, I was unexpectedly asked to display the training skills I had been taught over the past 90 minutes by my instructor.

I got to fly the blimp.

Murray said it is almost impossible to crash a blimp — almost? — and that if both engines suddenly failed, the ship would begin to descend but would actually decelerate.

After about 10 minutes, my piloting “career” came to an end, and Murray resumed control of his ship for the conclusion of the two-hour trip. He explained that no two landings are alike. Looking below, I saw the ground crew lined up in a “V” shape. That was to indicate the direction of the wind at ground level. The blimp would land inside the “V.”

The ground crew forms a "V" to indicate the direction of the wind at ground level.

Just then, the wind picked up unexpectedly.

Murray had explained earlier that every air pocket had the potential of heating (or cooling) all or part of the balloon and that while planes are designed to slice through such areas of turbulence, balloons are not. To me, it sounded like being a catcher for a knuckleball pitcher.

We got tossed around for 7 or 8 minutes as he spun and pedalled. As we neared the ground, the crew flanked the ship, grabbing the mooring ropes to slow us down as two members rushed to the nose to help stop us. All very high tech, I mused.

It was 11 a.m. My two-hour ride had come to an end, and the crew had an hour on the ground before they had to begin their flight to MetLife’s new retail division headquarters in south Charlotte, where they would then spend the afternoon hovering above that MetLife campus.

When Finney asked if I enjoyed joining the small rank of people who had gone for a ride, I told him how surprised I was that so few of the dozens of people I had spoken to for this story knew how the business side of a blimp’s sports operations worked — but even fewer had actually ridden in a blimp.

His response to the latter, which was repeated to me later by others, was simple:

“We’re all working. We get into town Wednesday night for a race or tournament, and so does everyone else. For them, the event starts; for us, we get to work. When the weekend is over, we all go home or on to the next event.”

Leaving the folks on the ground to keep thinking about their bucket list.

Thursday night’s NBA draft will have 11 of the league’s full marketing partners activating around the event at the Barclays Center.

Last year, eight of the league’s partners had a presence at the draft.

State Farm Insurance returns as the draft’s presenting partner. Adidas, American Express, Cisco, EA Sports, Gatorade, Foot Locker, Nike, Samsung, SAP and Sprint also are activating around the event.

Among the new activations this year is a draft roundtable live stream sponsored by American Express. The “Off the Court” roundtable will be streamed on Tuesday on and will be hosted by Rick Fox along with expected draft picks Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, and Gary Harris.

Nike’s Jordan Brand will use the draft to highlight its 30th anniversary campaign featuring Michael Jordan on his NBA draft night in 1984.

Samsung had plans to feature Joel Embiid in a new digital content series on the company’s site documenting his experiences throughout the full draft week. Embiid was to undergo surgery last week for a stress fracture in his right foot and was not expected to attend the draft.

In addition to its presenting sponsorship, State Farm will continue its “Future of the Assist” campaign through the draft, spotlighting three of the top point guards in this year’s field: Tyler Ennis, Shabazz Napier and Smart. The video clips of the campaign will be on and on the league’s Facebook and Instagram pages.

Additionally, Foot Locker will debut a series of five 15-second spots with draft prospect Dante Exum. Its campaign is called “Life Changes After the Draft,” and Foot Locker will run the spots within NBA digital and social media assets.

“Overall, we have never seen more demand compared to previous years,” said Emilio Collins, NBA executive vice president of global marketing partnerships. “More partners are turning out for the draft this year, and from a content standpoint, many of our partners want to get inside the lives of these guys.”

Like last year, American Express is hosting an NBA Draft Experience event for 150 of its card members including a behind-the-scenes tour at the Barclays Center and a pre-draft reception. Cisco also is using the draft for a hospitality program. and NBA Mobile, including the NBA Game Time mobile app, will feature the NBA Draft Hub leading up to Thursday night. The hub features a variety of NBA draft news and content.

Airport hangars are littered with the memories of brands that thought they could make blimp-based marketing work for them in the sports space: Fuji, Kodak, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, McDonald’s and Outback Steakhouse, to name a few. Even advertising giant Anheuser-Busch, whose Budweiser and later Bud Light airship was a frequent visitor at marquee events throughout the 1990s, deflated its program after 2001.

“It is a complicated activation when you look at the realm of traditional media buys,” said John Haegele, CEO of blimp owner Van Wagner Airship Group. “It’s not something that fits nice and neatly into a pitch where a marketing person can go in to his boss and say, ‘Hey, we just purchased advertising on ESPN and, by the way, we need a blimp for three months.’ It’s a bit of a different conversation.”

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are 52 blimps or other “lighter-than-air” ships listed on the FAA register. But executives at Van Wagner and at Goodyear Tire & Rubber, the country’s two biggest blimp owners, say that half of those airships are no longer in operation and that worldwide there are approximately 13 ready-to-fly advertising blimps. Both companies also estimate that worldwide there are about 40 pilots who are licensed to fly these ships.

The process of getting a blimp to cover an event requires significant advance planning, and not simply because of the blimps’ slow pace of travel.

“When it comes to prioritizing what events we decide to show up at, we look at cost to us, which is largely a human cost due to travel, then what is the ultimate on-air value we’ll get in return,” said Goodyear media buyer Jeff Gagne, senior vice president of strategic investments at Havas Media in Boston.

Blimp operators are rarely paid to appear at an event, viewing their presence more as a marketing effort. Therefore, they try to maximize the number of events per trip.

“We’ll send a broadcast schedule to the operators as soon as it’s finalized and ask them their availability,” said Tom Gianakos, ESPN’s director of remote operations. “They prefer to have the marquee matchups, of course, and our producers love the beauty shots. And it’s a very fluid relationship: They’ll call us during the season, too, or we’ll call them and try to fit in a game.”

Once a flight path has been set in conjunction with the targeted events, blimps usually set down in rural airfields near major cities. Sometimes, it’s in a local farmer’s field.


Blimp brands aren't the only ones that get exposure through the aerial footage provided by airships when they take to the sky. The cities that host the blimp-covered games draw benefits, too. Repucom monitored for SportsBusiness Journal such exposure for host cities during MLB's Opening Weekend games.

Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Sunday, March 30, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN) 11 2:10 $57,771
Colorado at Miami Monday, March 31, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2) 7 1:37 $29,317

Note: Two additional ESPN games on March 31 (Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. ET; St. Louis at Cincinnati, 4 p.m. ET) featured non-logoed Goodyear-owned and operated planes covering the game. These planes have the same cameras as the blimps, and the tire company receives the same hourly on-air graphic and acknowledgement as they do with their blimps. In Pittsburgh, 10 exposures of the city's skyline across 2:18 of time was valued at $55,803, according to Repucom. In St. Louis, there were 15 city exposures across 2:59, also valued at a total of $55,803.
* Repucom calculates visual and audio exposures based on size, duration and placement of the image on the television screen, among other factors. The media values assessed are dependent on multiple factors, including viewership, network advertising and broadcast sponsorship rates.
Source: Repucom

“We have to cover the travel costs of an entire ground and flight crew, so we do look for cheap real estate when we can,” said Jon Gieselman, DirecTV senior vice president of marketing. Those travel costs typically come in around $5,000 per day.

The blimps require 12 to 16 ground crew members and a small fleet of support vehicles that can include a large bus (which becomes a kind of mobile office), a tractor-trailer rig (which holds replacement parts and equipment), and a passenger van. The tractor-trailer is where electronic technicians and mechanics perform repairs in the field when necessary. The van is used as a command car, passenger shuttle and utility vehicle.

The airship and all the vehicles are linked by private, two-way radio communications. The vehicles can only go as far each day as the blimp does, and once the targeted event is underway, the crew’s engineers set up a portable microwave transmitter and act as a liaison between the blimp and the event’s TV broadcaster.

Gianakos, who has been with ESPN since 1980, said the blimp crew is usually in charge of securing event-specific frequency coordination for their engineers while the network handles any necessary FAA waivers. Such waivers are required for nearly every stadium event and for
NASCAR Sprint Cup and major horse races. The FAA put in place temporary flight restriction protocols over these venues after the 2001 terrorist attacks. A TFR extends from the ground’s surface to 3,000 feet up and has a radius of three nautical miles.

However, the FAA may authorize certain operators to fly inside a TFR through a waiver process, according to FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto. An operator who wants to obtain a waiver can apply online through the Transportation Security Administration by providing information about the purpose of the flight, the aircraft to be flown and the crew members. The TSA performs a security check on the crew members and the aircraft and forwards the information to the FAA. The FAA reviews the information to ensure that it falls under one of the permissible activities allowed by law, such as supporting the event, transporting game officials or being part of an authorized broadcast.

If everything is in order, the FAA issues a waiver. Neither the FAA nor the TSA charges a fee for this process.

Not all trips require full travel crews. Goodyear’s three ships live in hangars and cover many events in their home markets, though the ground crew at the hangar does have to be present for both takeoffs and landings. MetLife’s ships do not have permanent homes, so not only are the ships themselves exposed to the elements year-round, but their caretakers also are on the road most of the year.

Another possible deterrent to entering the blimp business is that the NFL, the nation’s most popular sports property, rarely allows a blimp near its stadiums.

“We take the temporary flight restrictions very seriously because it helps to keep our fans safe,” said a league spokeswoman. “We work closely with the FAA to ensure that our media partners don’t request waivers to the TFR through a contractor that wants to fly an aircraft inside the restricted airspace. Our broadcast partners can utilize aircraft or blimps so long as they do not violate the parameters of the TFR.”

As part of a seasonlong deal last fall, a plane towing a Geico banner was present at each of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcasts, said Dan Masonson, senior director of communications at NBC Sports.

The NFL is not the only property that is less than enthusiastic about having a blimp hovering above its venues. Since 9/11, the University of Michigan has successfully lobbied annually to keep its airspace clear during home football games.

“A lot of it has to do with the fact that we’re the largest stadium in the country,” said David Ablauf, the school’s associate athletic director of media and public relations, referring to nearly 110,000-seat Michigan Stadium. “It’s just a public safety issue.”

Since 2001, the school has honored an average of one to two requests per season by the networks to have a blimp appear, he said.

In the fall of 2007, executives at Goodyear Tire & Rubber knew they would soon need to make a decision about the future of one of the most enduring icons in American sports. The technology and physical structure of each member of its three-ship fleet of GZ-20 blimps was nearly unchanged since the design was introduced in 1969. And while the sky was not necessarily getting more crowded, the competition for sports air space was showing signs of heating up.

DirecTV had just unveiled its first blimp during Fox’s coverage of the World Series at Fenway Park in Boston, complete with the world’s first flight-worthy LED video display on its side. Earlier in the year, MetLife, with its illuminated balloons, strengthened its increasingly dominant position in golf by formally signing a deal to become the official aerial provider of the PGA Tour.

“No one wanted to discontinue the program,” said Scott Rogers, Goodyear’s chief marketing officer. “But like any smart corporation entering the end of a campaign, we did have to step back to take a really close look at whether we were still getting value out of the investment.”


How the new Goodyear ship compares to the one it’s replacing

GZ-20 Model Zeppelin
1972 Designed 2014
192 feet Length 246.4 feet
50 feet Max. width (inflated) 64.8 feet
59.5 feet Height 57.5 feet
None Internal framework Aluminum and carbon fiber trusses
202,700 cubic feet Envelope volume 297,527 cubic feet
12,840 lbs. Max. weight 19,780 lbs.
50 mph Max. speed 73 mph
7 Gondola seating Configurable for up to 12, plus 2 crew
3,472 lbs. Gondola weight, when empty 2,626 lbs
82,656 No. of LEDs on signs 37,000*
2 “pushers” Engines 3 “vectored”
210 each Engine horsepower 200 each
24 hours Endurance 24 to 40 hours
110/110 decibels Noise level inside/outside gondola 64/69.4 decibels
No Bathroom Yes

* The Zeppelin requires fewer lights because the new ones are 70 percent brighter and have four times the resolution of the prior lights.
Source: Goodyear

As the company was researching its next step, the global recession hit. People were driving less, and fewer people were buying cars. The company laid off nearly 10,000 employees, and Goodyear’s tire sales fell to near-historic lows.

In the years that would follow, there was much discussion and research. And as decision time approached in 2011, the marketing staff produced a bevy of blimp-related numbers:

n $10 million in television media value delivered by aerial coverage in 2010;

n Hundreds of thousands of dollars generated annually by charities as a result of blimp rides donated by the company; and,

n Hundreds of dealer and customer appreciation flights.

But like many marketing campaigns, regardless of product or medium, no line item could show how many tires, if any, were sold as a result.

In the end, it didn’t matter.

“The blimp serves us in four key areas,” Rogers said. “It broadens Goodyear’s awareness: It’s a floating ambassador, and we really feel it keeps us top of mind. Second, in broadcasts, it continues to give us media value in a unique way. Third, it helps us fulfill our mission of supporting our host communities, especially through the donations of blimp rides. And finally, the blimp is used to enhance customer appreciation and dealers’ events.”

With that perspective, in May 2011, Goodyear ordered three new ships from ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik in Germany, the same company that helped build Goodyear’s first Zeppelins in the 1920s. The average cost of the new ships, according to ZLT: about $21 million each.

Now, after more than a year of assembling, testing, training and navigating the Federal Aviation Association’s certification process, the first new Zeppelin is expected to make its maiden flight in mid-July. Goodyear is confident the investment will pay off, as the ships will be faster, allowing them to cover more events than the current fleet; quieter, which will be especially valuable to its golf and tennis business; and much more nimble, which should improve the blimps’ golf and race coverage.

But the biggest difference fans will notice are the improved LED signs. Goodyear changed aerial advertising in 1933, when the company attached lightbulbs to the side of its Defender blimp. Obviously there have been upgrades in technology since then, but key among the advances in the blimp space is when DirecTV in 2007 debuted a blimp that had a 2,100-square-foot LED “light sign” on its side. The display on that ship was further upgraded this spring and now boasts 235,200 LEDs. The result is a 900-pound board that actually causes the DirecTV ship to tilt at a 5 percent angle when airborne.

Goodyear’s new Zeppelin model will have two HD LED boards that are roughly 70 percent brighter than the current Goodyear blimp signs. The rectangular displays have more than 37,000 individual LEDs and are approximately four times the resolution of the current signs. The 23-by-39-foot port-side display will weigh nearly 500 pounds; the 8-by-32-foot sign affixed to the starboard side will weigh approximately 200 pounds. The signs’ difference in weight and their relative positioning on a ship aims to help maintain the blimp’s center of gravity.

As for what appears on those displays, DirecTV technicians currently have the unique ability to customize the message boards of that blimp while the ship is in flight. (The MetLife ships are without boards; Goodyear’s displays are programmed prior to flights, though the new Zeppelins will have custom capabilities.) That programming flexibility is important as the group seeks to interact more with fans on the ground via texting and social media. The blimp’s 30-by-70-foot screen also can display live video action, concerts, highlights, scoreboards, promotions and interviews — though these interactive offerings do require an additional layer of FAA approval.

Some of that video can come from the blimp’s own camera. California-based Cineflex provides the gyro-stabilized HD cameras used by each of the major blimp brands. A 250-pound fixture, the camera is mounted on the ship’s gondola with a zoom lens that provides up to 80-times magnification. The price of the camera, according to people in the industry and analysis of publicly available bid documents that cite the technology: approximately $250,000.

But that’s the cost of the blimp being the asset to televised sports coverage that it is.

“The aerial shots give the fan perspective of what the player is facing, the difficulties and nuances of each hole,” said Rob Ohno, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of corporate marketing. “That one camera gives you stuff you can’t get from a camera at the tee box: the green grass, blue water, white sands, the view from the ocean. And in golf, these aren’t just beauty shots. These help tell the story of each individual course and tournament.”

That technology came into play at the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, S.C., when a Rory McIlroy tee shot became lodged in a tree branch. No one on the ground could find it, but the camera crew on board the MetLife blimp overhead spotted the ball and passed the word down to the CBS crew on the ground who came over and pointed it out. McIlroy took a drop and a one-stroke penalty, made par, and ended up winning the tournament.


Several features of the new Zeppelin blimps stand to benefit both people on the ground and those in flight with the airship. Regarding the noise, the new, quieter ship is expected to operate at 64 to 70 decibels compared with 110 decibels for the current ships — the difference between a dishwasher and a Seattle Seahawks game. The new blimps’ cabins also will be able to accommodate more passengers, will have air conditioning, and, of particular importance to pilots on those 10-hour assignments, will have a toilet.

Less visible to fans watching on TV or at the event: The design of the blimp itself has changed little since Goodyear launched its GZ-20 models (the America and Columbia) in the late 1960s. Neither of those ships nor any Goodyear or Van Wagner Airship Group blimp since has had an internal frame or skeleton; they basically are a massive balloon coated with neoprene rubber filled with nonflammable helium, with a gondola, engines, and perhaps advertising displays attached.

The new Zeppelins do have a frame, so if one of the blimps were somehow to rupture and the helium floods out, the frame will hold the airfoils in place and prevent the balloon from collapsing over the gondola, which would effectively blind the pilot.

Handwheels aside the pilot's seat are part of the older blimps' navigation system.
As for the pilots, the biggest change for them in the new design is with the steering. The manual flight system of all the blimps in the Goodyear and Van Wagner fleets consists of rudder pedals (like a paddle boat) and handwheels aside the pilot’s seat that resemble an antique wheelchair. It’s a design that dates to a century ago, when the first blimp took flight.
For the Zeppelin, a joystick that controls the ship’s pitch and lateral movements will make piloting the new ships more like flying a helicopter during take off and landing, and like flying a small plane when covering an event.

Goodyear’s current ships have two 210-horsepower “pusher” engines below the rear of the cabin. The Zeppelins will have three 200-horsepower “vectored” engines, which can be tilted up and down, giving the pilot the ability to take off and land in smaller spaces and do zero-radius (or, pivot) turns that are critical to golf and racing coverage.

The Goodyear blimp’s regular 150-gallon fuel tank consumes 100-octane, low-lead fuel and averages nine to 10 gallons per hour over the course of an event.

“The new ship can run three engines at approximately the same fuel consumption as the two on the current GZ-20. The fuel efficiency really comes when traveling,” said Doug Grassian, Goodyear’s senior manager of airship communications. “The increased speed helps us get to our destination quicker, which translates into less fuel and shorter travel times. The improvement is in miles per gallon. Also, the new engines are electronic ignition, which is way more fuel efficient than the previous way we operated.”

The vectored engines should make life a little easier on the ground crew, as well. To secure the blimps during takeoff and landing, six to eight people hang on to mooring ropes attached to the sides of the airship, much like a dockhand does for a boat. Their task figures to become somewhat easier with the pilot having increased control over the newly designed ships.

One drawback to the Zeppelins is that they are expected to have a slightly shorter life span, estimated to be about a decade. In comparison, when the Spirit of Goodyear retired earlier this year after 14 years of flight, it did so with the distinction of having been the longest continuous operating airship ever.

While the FAA does not require a different license to fly a Zeppelin, all of Goodyear’s 12 pilots are going through ZLT’s Zeppelin training program, which includes 25 hours of classroom training and 150 hours of supervised flying with a qualified Zeppelin pilot.

The FAA requires that ships or any ship parts be replaced when the manufacturer’s specified use limitation is due. Van Wagner’s ships are made by its wholly-owned American Blimp Co. The company replaced Snoopy One in February but does not anticipate any of its other airships reaching the end of their useful life in the near term. The airship features a special internal illumination system that features two, 50-pound, 1,000-watt bulbs, allowing the airship’s envelope to glow during nighttime operations.

Goodyear’s California-based Spirit of America, launched in 2002, will be replaced by a new Zeppelin model in 2016. The company’s Florida-based Spirit of Innovation will be replaced by a new Zeppelin in 2019, rounding out Goodyear’s trio of ships.

1932: The Goodyear blimp Volunteer provides a local radio station a bird’s-eye view of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

1955: The first live U.S. transcontinental broadcast from an aircraft occurs from the Goodyear Enterprise during NBC’s coverage of the 1955 Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif.

1977: Goodyear grants use of all three of its U.S.-based blimps for the movie “Black Sunday.” The landing and hijacking scenes were photographed at the Goodyear airship base in Carson, Calif., with the ship Columbia; a short scene was shot at the Spring, Texas, base with the ship America; and the Miami Super Bowl scenes came via the Mayflower.

1989: Goodyear’s Columbia blimp plays a critical role in the news coverage of the earthquake that delayed the World Series.

1992: Anheuser-Busch’s Bud One Airship launches. The airship goes on to be featured in A-B’s Bud Bowl V and Bud Bowl VI advertisements during the Super Bowl in 1994 and 1995.

1992: The Duff Beer Blimp makes its inaugural flight in Season 4 of “The Simpsons.” Homer Simpson wins a ride in the blimp but sells his ticket for $250 to Barney to raise enough money for Lisa to enter a school competition. In a parody of the Hindenburg disaster, Barney crashes the blimp into a radio tower.

1993: Rapper Ice Cube releases “It Was A Good Day,” a song that describes one perfect day in South Los Angeles and that includes the lyrics “Even saw the lights of the Goodyear blimp / And it read ‘Ice Cube’s a pimp.’” In January 2014, the celebrity would team up with Goodyear to raise money for A Place Called Home, a South Los Angeles organization that mentors at-risk youth. The blimp sailed over the city during a fundraising event displaying the message “Ice Cube says: Today is a Good Day.”

1994: MetLife’s Snoopy One launches out of Tampa, primarily to cover East Coast events. Its debut actually came a few months after the debut of the Snoopy Two airship, which launched out of Hillsboro, Ore., primarily to cover West Coast events. Scheduling conflicts resulted in “Two” taking off ahead of “One” for their respective maiden voyages.

1996: HP Hood, a Massachusetts-based dairy, begins a part-time blimp program. The Van Wagner-owned ship covers approximately 20 Boston Red Sox games and other events each summer, then heads to Florida for the rest of the year and is made available for short-term lease.

1998: Anheuser-Busch debuts an ad campaign featuring two sports fans known as the Blimp Guys, who cruise the country in the Bud One Airship passing over sporting events along the way. One spot, which ties to Budweiser’s official sponsor status with MLB, has the blimp flying over Busch Stadium, as then-St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire sends a Bud-logoed baseball into the sky. “Hey, man, call the FAA,” one of the Blimp Guys says to the other. “These guys are a threat to our airspace.”

2001: Pilots in Oakland flying a blimp bearing the XFL and Spalding logos are forced to abandon the ship in flight after losing control. The unattended blimp floats about 5 miles in 20 minutes before its gondola catches on a sailboat mast in the Central Basin marina and collapses on the roof of the Oyster Reef restaurant. Rumors swirl that it was all a stunt conceived by WWE to drive interest in its soon-to-begin football league, but the talk was never substantiated.

2001: The Snoopy One airship is put on the temporary disabled list and does not make it to its scheduled appearance at a Kansas City Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium. Strong winds the night before the game caused the blimp’s mooring mast at Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport to break, and the ship was blown about 60 miles northeast. It came to rest on top of a truck at the Minnis Burial Vault Co. but did so without damage to the airship or to any property, nor any injury to people below.

2001: After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration puts in place temporary flight restrictions over MLB, NFL and major college football games as well as NASCAR races. The ban extends from the surface to 3,000 feet and has a radius of 3 nautical miles from the event venue.

2007: MetLife becomes the PGA Tour’s official aerial provider. A four-year extension through 2016 is signed in 2013.

2007: The DirecTV blimp debuts at the World Series in Boston. The A-170LS Video Lightsign Lightship features the world’s first flight-worthy LED video screen.

2011: For the first time, a network splits its coverage of a sporting event between two competing blimps. At the Daytona 500, a Goodyear blimp provides Fox with aerial coverage during the first half of the race, and the DirecTV airship handles the second half. The coverage brought together two NASCAR sponsors, both of which had a sports relationship with Fox as well.

The tailfin of the Spirit of Goodyear awaits its journey to the Smithsonian.
2012: NBC selects Goodyear to provide aerial images of its coverage of the London Olympics, the 10th Games for the company. Other than Goodyear’s Olympics appearances and Snoopy J in Japan, blimp advertising is uncommon outside the United States.

2012: At the PGA Championship, Rory McIlroy hits a tee shot that becomes lodged in a branch of a leafless tree not far from the green. No one can find the ball until the camera crew on board Snoopy Two spots it and passes the word down to the CBS crew on the ground, which conveys the discovery to McIlroy. He finds the ball, takes a drop and a one-stroke penalty — but ends up winning the tournament.

2013: More than a decade after Budweiser last used an airship to promote its products (the brand stopped after the increased FAA restrictions following 9/11), the company returns to the skies with a blimp: an A60+ Lightship, promoting responsible drinking.

2013: For the first time, two Goodyear blimps (Spirit of Goodyear and Spirit of Innovation) simultaneously provide live aerial television coverage of a sporting event as they circle overhead Miami’s SunLife Stadium for ESPN’s coverage of Virginia Tech vs. Miami football. Innovation’s home base is in South Florida; the Goodyear ship is based in Akron, Ohio, but was in Florida for annual winter maintenance.

2014: The 14-year-old Spirit of Goodyear airship flies from Akron, Ohio, to Florida and retires after the Daytona 500. The ship was certified by Guinness World Records as the longest continuous operating airship, and its tailfins are marked for donation to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Compiled by David Broughton
Sources: Goodyear, Van Wagner, DirecTV, MetLife and SportsBusiness Journal/Daily archives

Eugenie Bouchard has signed her first major off-court endorsement deal since making the semifinals of the first two Grand Slam tournaments of the year.

Bouchard will be the face of Coke and Diet Coke in Canada, her home country, in a three-year deal. As part of the agreement, Bouchard will be integrated into advertising, retail activation and experiential marketing efforts for the brands.

The world’s No. 13-ranked player as of last week, Bouchard is viewed as an up-and-coming player who could become a marketing star on the WTA Tour.

She has existing deals with Nike, Babolat, Rogers Communications, USANA and Pinty’s foods.

Lagardère Unlimited represents her.

“Her demeanor both on and off the court embodies happiness and active, healthy living; and because of this, she is truly an inspiration to Canadians and a perfect fit for our company,” said Michael Samoszewski, vice president, sparkling business unit, Coca-Cola, in a statement included in a release due out this week.

Aramark has won merchandise sales rights for Super Bowl XLIX, which will be held in 2015 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., and for Super Bowl LI in 2017 at NRG Stadium in Houston, said sources familiar with the deal. It will be a first for Aramark, which has the food/beverage and merchandise rights in Houston.

Earlier this year, the NFL sent potential business partners an RFP, seeking bidders for retail merchandising rights for the two Super Bowls. The league asked respondents to bid on NFL-branded stadium retail, a store at the NFL Experience, and at area hotels. Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., was not included.

After more than two decades with Facility Merchandising Inc. servicing venues, stadium merchandise rights for the Super Bowl have gone to different venues in recent years. Delaware North had venue merchandise rights at this year’s game, while MainGate serviced hotel sales.

Total retail sales for this year’s game in the New York market hit a record of more than $200 million.

— Terry Lefton

CAA Sports has acquired the experiential marketing company PGW, which works with major brands such as AT&T and Starbucks.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The acquisition will allow CAA Sports’ corporate consulting division, which was started in 2011, to offer experiential marketing services to its clients. It also gives it a chance to work with PGW’s roster of clients, which includes Trident, Luxottica and Skechers.

PGW was founded in 1998 by marketing executive Russ Jones, who will work with Greg Luckman, global head of CAA Sports Consulting, to provide experiential marketing programs for corporate clients. Jones, who oversees a staff of 165 employees, will report to CAA Sports co-heads Howard Nuchow and Michael Levine.

CAA Sports’ corporate consulting business has grown rapidly since its launch three years ago. It now manages more than $1.5 billion of sponsorship deals and works with a host of marquee companies, including JPMorgan Chase, Emirates airline, Time Warner Cable and Mondelez.

As the consulting division’s client roster has grown, the division’s employee count has increased by 70 percent, to more than 50, Luckman said.

“Our clients, these brands, are looking for CAA to provide more full-service capabilities and those full-service capabilities can range from strategic consulting to sponsorship negotiations to what we are seeing increasingly more of, experiential marketing,” Luckman said. “With PGW coming on board, that allows us to immediately scale our capabilities in the experiential marketing area.”

Luckman said the PGW acquisition will help CAA Sports deepen its live-event production and grassroots marketing capabilities so that it can offer brands mobile tours and social-media-enabled street teams.

The addition of PGW gives CAA Sports the ability to fully build out and execute programs from strategy and consultation to execution. It will now have a full offering like rival agencies Octagon, IMG, The Marketing Arm, GMR and others. Another competitor with a corporate consulting practice, Wasserman Media Group, acquired an experiential marketing firm, Ignite, last year.

Talks about an acquisition emerged after CAA Sports began working with PGW late last year on an experiential marketing campaign for CAA Sports client Time Warner Cable. Both Luckman and Jones said that through their working relationship they found they had a cultural fit.

PGW works for agencies, but the majority of its clients are brands, Jones said, and has also been rapidly expanding.

“We have never been able to come in and say, ‘Oh, by the way, we can help you in sports marketing over on the entertainment side,” Jones said. “It adds strength to our team and we love it from that perspective, to be able to go to clients and be able to offer new services that we couldn’t offer them before, with confidence.”

PGW is based in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles and has offices in Chicago and New York, as well as field representatives in markets across the U.S. CAA Sports is based in Century City, a few miles north of PGW’s offices.

To start, the experiential marketing company will continue to operate under the PGW name. “We just felt that was the right thing to do because of the equity that Russ and his team have built up,” Luckman said.

“But make no mistake about it,” he said, “they will be 100 percent integrated into CAA and CAA Sports.”

The days of the orange, No. 20 Home Depot car are coming to an end.

The company, which has been a primary NASCAR sponsor since 1999, will leave the sport after its contract with Joe Gibbs Racing ends this season, said sources familiar with Home Depot’s plans. The home improvement company’s exit comes after several years of reductions in its marketing commitment to NASCAR.

Home Depot and Joe Gibbs Racing declined to comment.

Home Depot first came into the sport in 1999.

Sources said Joe Gibbs Racing is in talks with Dollar General about filling the void left by Home Depot. The discount retailer, which already is primary sponsor for 27 races on the No. 20 Sprint Cup car driven by Matt Kenseth, is expected to sign on as the primary sponsor of the No. 20 car for 30-plus races in 2015.

A deal of that size with a top-10 driver is valued at more than $20 million a year.

A Dollar General spokeswoman said the company hasn’t finalized its NASCAR plans beyond 2014.

Home Depot began reducing its marketing spend in NASCAR several years ago. In 2012, the company declined to renew its title sponsorship of Speed’s NASCAR program “Race Day presented by The Home Depot.” It had sponsored the show for six years.

The end of that TV deal coincided with a 12-race reduction in Home Depot’s sponsorship of the No. 20 car, after the company had sponsored all 36 races for a decade. Home Depot followed that with a five-race reduction last year and a 10-race reduction this year. It then shifted its Home Depot logo off the car and replaced it with the logo of its tool company, Husky.

Home Depot came into the sport in 1999 as the sponsor of then-rookie driver Tony Stewart. The company enjoyed early success with the soaring popularity of Stewart, an animated and often agitated driver. The company won 33 races and two championships in 10 years with Stewart, but he left in 2009 to create Stewart-Haas Racing.

Home Depot won two races in the next four years with Joey Logano. His struggles coincided with the departure of Home Depot chief marketer Frank Bifulco, who was replaced in 2011 by current Home Depot chief marketer Trish Mueller.

Home Depot is the most recent example of a longtime NASCAR team sponsor leaving the sport. UPS, which has sponsored Roush Fenway Racing for more than a decade, also plans to end its team sponsorship after this season.

Teams have succeeded in bringing in replacements in recent years, though, such as Dow Chemical and Peak Motor Oil. More than 60 new sponsors signed on for team deals last year.

IMG has tapped a former Turner sales executive, Greg D’Alba, to become the company’s first head of global sales.


D’Alba, the former president of CNN and Turner digital ad sales, has been hired as IMG’s president of global sales and marketing, a new role that will be tasked with selling sponsorships across the company’s events, which range from golf tournaments to fashion shows to concert tours. IMG announced the news internally last week.

D’Alba is the first major hire IMG has made since it was acquired by WME in a $2.4 billion deal last year. WME co-CEOs Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell believe a global sales executive can help increase revenue at the company by finding new sponsors and opportunities for existing clients to do more with other IMG events.

He will be based in New York and report to Emanuel and Whitesell.

D’Alba joined CNN in 1986 and eventually became the president of digital ad sales. He left the company this year during a restructuring. He was praised by Turner President David Levy for his leadership and client relationships. He spent the bulk of his career working on the news side of the business with CNN.

The last time IMG hired a senior sales executive to sell across its assets was in 2006, when it tapped former NBC executive Peter Lazarus to develop a centralized sales strategy. It abandoned those efforts less than a year later. D’Alba’s role will be different in that he won’t lead a centralized sales team.

After 12 years with the company, Beth Hirschhorn has very quietly left MetLife, where she was the company’s most senior marketer and held the title of executive vice president of global brand, marketing and communications. She also was the person most associated with the insurer’s top sports investment, the 25-year naming-rights deal at the New Jersey stadium that the New York Jets and Giants call home.

Perhaps even more intriguing is that according to her employment termination agreement, a copy of which was obtained here, Hirschhorn was paid $1.25 million to leave MetLife, of which her attorneys were reimbursed to the tune of $150,000. The agreement was the result of private mediation, but the specific nature of the dispute is unclear and unspecified in the agreement.

Beth Hirschhorn with former Giant Amani Toomer and former Jet Vinny Testaverde in 2012

Aside from standard nondisparagement and hold harmless clauses, the agreement also notes that Hirschhorn’s “unvested stock options and unvested restricted stock units are cancelled and forfeited.” Hirschhorn’s last day of employment was April 23, but she lost access to company voicemail and email March 28.

We’re told that Richard Hong, MetLife vice president of global brand and marketing, is now the company’s de facto chief marketing officer.

> TERRY TOONS: Fox analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw has signed a multiyear deal with pharmaceutical giant Merck as spokesman for an awareness campaign about shingles, a disease from which he once suffered. Television ads under the supervision of creative agency Publicis Kaplan Thaler are being shot this week at Bradshaw’s Oklahoma ranch. The ads should break around the start of the NFL season and the campaign also will include print and digital efforts. Since Bradshaw signed with IMG for talent representation and marketing endorsements a year ago, he has added endorsements with NFL corporate sponsors Pepsi and Verizon.

> TALKING ’BOUT PRACTICE: Naming rights for the Philadelphia 76ers’ as-yet-unbuilt 120,000-square-foot team headquarters and practice facility on Camden, N.J.’s waterfront are on the street with a low-seven-figure asking price. Signage on the facility will be visible from the heavily trafficked Ben Franklin Bridge, which links Camden and Philadelphia, and from the Philadelphia waterfront.

The team, which has been practicing at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine’s gym for some time, hopes to move into the new facility in 2016. The team has an option on adjacent land to be developed for mixed use.

> NOTHING BUT NET, PART II: Hindsight isn’t always 20/20. Try as we might in our recent story on the Allstate field goal nets to determine their absolute origin (see SportsBusiness Journal, May 26-June 1, 2014), we stand corrected courtesy of former NHL executive Ken Yaffe, who tells us that when he was at the Arena Football League, he helped execute a deal in 1987 with quick-service restaurant Hardee’s for the league’s first Arena-Bowl championship game. As part of the deal, Hardee’s had — you guessed it — branded field goal nets at each end of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena for the game between the Pittsburgh Gladiators and Denver Dynamite. For the record, it was the only outdoor ArenaBowl, since the now defunct arena opened its retractable roof for the game.

The NFL’s branded nets at the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl weren’t seen until 2002.

> COMINGS & GOINGS: Longtime Reebok/Adidas marketer David Baxter, who headed the sports licensed and sports performance divisions over his 16 years there, has left the company. … Mark Foxton joins Levi’s as director of sports marketing and will try to connect the company’s big title sponsorship investment at the new San Francisco 49ers stadium with apparel. It’s a bit of a homecoming for Foxton, since he was director of corporate partnerships for the 49ers from 2001 to 2005. Since then, Foxton also has worked for Live Nation, the NBA’s team marketing and business operations division, MSG and MLS.

Terry Lefton can be reached at