Leading Sport: Declan Kearney on Aer Lingus and Sporting Sponsorship

As part of our Leading Sport series of interviews with those helping frame and support the future of sport in Ireland we caught up with Declan Kearney, Director of Communications for Aer Lingus, and former National Juvenile Champion Discus Thrower, on where the airline is with regard to a broad range of supports and sponsorships across Irish sport from Rugby to the GAA and Special Olympics to College Football.

Sport for Business: Aer Lingus’ Rugby Partnership is your most high profile within  Irish sport. How do they work best for you?

Declan Kearney: We are very much committed to our Rugby Partnerships.  We are the official airline of Irish Rugby and very happy with how that has gone for us.  We are two and a half years in now and it has been a very strong relationship.

It has been taken up by both the rugby audience and our customer base, testament to the fact that it’s a very good fit.  So much so in fact that in the very early stages our research told us that people thought it was in place for a lot longer than it was, that it was almost expected of us.

Obviously, the Irish Rugby team are a source of great pride. We are very much associated with Ireland and particularly overseas we are very proud of our connection to Ireland.

One of the high points for us was the victory at Soldier Field over the All Blacks.  Chicago is one of our big towns.  We fly in and out twice a day with 400,000 seats a year between there and Dublin so it is important to us and this was a great opportunity.

The idea of bringing Irish sport to America really appealed to us.  Bringing Ireland to America and America to Ireland is what we do and sport is a key element in that.

We activated mostly on social media and as a platform that has worked really well.  We had great banter online with Air New Zealand around that fixture and the return to Dublin and that was great fun.

We put a lot of sponsorship money into the programme as well.  We run TV and outdoor ads as well as ambassadors and we also painted two of the aircraft in the Irish Rugby colours and with ambassadors on board.

If you are a rugby fan it really makes you feel good about getting on board so that has worked really well.

It’s not a new idea but it worked because we fly extensively into all the Six Nations country.

We did a lot of in-flight activation as well for social media.  We have an innovative team who’ve had players wearing snapchat glasses, Conor Murray’s legs on table tops and all sorts.

People fly with us to the games so we’ve had brass bands at the boarding gates and that’s always great fun.

It works because we fly the team, we fly the supporters, we have the aircraft painted and it just fits.

We started flying to San Francisco again in 2014 and so having both the Men’s and Women’s Sevens teams playing there in the World Cup next year will also be a winner.

SfB: The US looms large then and that’s also an element of your relationship with the Gaelic Players Association.

DK: We are co-sponsors with AIG of this year’s Fenway Classic.

The relationship with the Gaelic Players is important and works well for us.  The GAA is keen to internationalise and we are very closely associated with bringing the best of Ireland to the world so that is a natural fit.

Bringing hurling to Boston, which is obviously a city we have a great connection to, really works well for both of us.  We’ve been doing business there since 1960 and helping to bring a celebration of Irish sport and culture to the City is great.

This is the third year of our involvement following on from a first hit in South Bend in 2013.

We had two provincial teams playing in the Lacrosse Stadium at Notre Dame which coincided with a Football game and the marketing we did was having Jackie Tyrell and Lar Corbett pucking around on the quad in Notre Dame.  People were amazed and they came down to watch.

That was a start but when Fenway Sports management got involved it was a real step up.

Last time around in 2015 was a one-off game between Dublin and Galway, this time we are bringing those two sides, one as All Ireland Champions and one with new Manager Pat Gilroy in charge for the first time, as well as Clare and Tipperary.  Three games in one great day.  It promises to be something special.

There are purists who say it’s not real hurling but the reality is that if you want to go around the world you can’t build hurling pitches in city centres with 140 metres of a playing surface.

SfB: You were Naming Rights Sponsors for the Aer Lingus College Football Classic last year.  How was that for you?

DK: It’s like the flip side of an event like the Fenway Classic but it works for us in that we are unique among most European airlines in bringing slightly more Americans to Ireland than Irish to America.  Normally Americans coming East will choose a US-based airline but for Ireland, they tend to choose us so supporting events that mean a lot to them is important.

Clearly, we are not in the market for buying TV ads in the Superbowl but building a connection to College Football in this way made sense.  We are part of the connection between the two countries and this is a great expression of that.

It was a good platform for marketing in the US which is the fastest growing part of the business so it really makes sense.

SfB: You are partners with Dublin GAA as well which feels more domestic than most of your sponsorships.  What is the thinking behind that?

GAA is trickier in that it is county-based and we are very much a national brand but Dublin is our main base, lots of our staff and customers are followers and Dublin is a great professional brand to be associated with. It works well from an engagement perspective with players at the top of their game.

SfB: So sport, in general, is important then.

Research shows us that sporting association wins well in terms of affinity and it presents occasional opportunities which we adapt to and score well through.

We supported the Ryder Cup when it came to Ireland in 2006.  We supported the Irish Olympic Team in London in 2012 and opportunities do arise from the simple fact that we fly people places.

SfB: How important is your long-term relationship with Special Olympics?

DK: We have been working with Special Olympics Ireland since 2003 when the world games came to Ireland.

Since then we have flown the team out to LA and out to Austria.  We also do a lot in terms of fundraising and staff engagement.  We have special collections on aircraft and a lot of our team volunteer to work at events.

It’s really good from a staff engagement perspective.  It’s also a great organisation to support because of Ireland’ place in the World Special Olympics in the world organisation.

There is a massive positive gap in terms of the number of people in Ireland with an intellectual disability that are engaged with sport and physical activity versus the rest of the world and that is something we are really proud to support.

The organisational structure around the country is superb and it really connects in terms of community engagement and the benefit for the athletes and their families.

SfB: And Finally what are your personal sporting passions

DK: I love hurling.  The speed and the commitment of the players are exceptional.

As a kid, I was a fairly committed track and field athlete.

I was a sprinter and threw the hammer and the discus at a national level and was the national champion in Discus but plans for a scholarship to the States to do that were scuppered when I stopped growing.

Watching sport at its best is great.  I watch all the big events, do a bit of running and swum and played water polo as well so it’s a broad interest.

I’m from Louth so I tend to be fairly neutral enjoying watching the best players and the best teams and enjoying what they do in such brilliant fashion.

The Leading Sport series is in partnership with our friends at PwC

What could we do together for your organisation?

Image Credit Paul Sherwood