Airships: Not your traditional media buy
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.
|GAME||DATE, TIME (NETWORK)||EXPOSURES||DURATION (MIN:SEC)||MEDIA VALUE FOR HOST CITY*|
|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.
“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.