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Volume 21 No. 30
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Flying high

How sponsors, networks and fans make the business of blimps soar

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