Why is United the official airline of the Chicago Bulls? Why is Delta the official airline of the Georgia Bulldogs? There is meaning behind these sponsorships/partnerships, and none happen by accident. Partnerships with sports properties have lasting impacts, and airlines are taking full advantage.
Southwest is one of 'the big four' airlines in the United States and has a unique place in the industry. Southwest also has unique sports partnership opportunities. Using Zoomph, a social media analysis tool, we can look at the interests of Southwest’s social media followers. With this information, we can explore Southwest's options, which leagues they should focus on, and which teams they should pursue for partnerships.
It is safe to say that most people who follow @SouthwestAir on Twitter are Southwest fans. Zoomph tells us that 60.4% of these followers are interested in music, and 54.4% are interested in sports. As you may have guessed, we will focus on sports. 54.4% may seem like a slim majority, but Southwest has 2.1 million Twitter followers. That 54.4% translates to 1.14 million people with a clear interest in sports. This audience deserves attention from Southwest’s marketing department.
Compared to other airlines, Southwest followers are big sports fans. According to a Sports Business Research Network (SBRnet) survey, Southwest dominates the market of fans in every sport except soccer. We will come back to that later.
Sponsor United, a sports sponsorship analysis tool, shows that Southwest only has 1 NFL partnership and 3 MLB partnerships. For context, Delta and United each have 14. As a low-cost airline, I wouldn’t expect Southwest to engage in countless sponsorships, but I would expect them to have more than 4. Let’s take a look at how they might catch up.
There are two ways to measure social media interest: percentage and index. The percentage indicates what portion of your followers are interested in a topic. The index goes further by comparing that percentage to a baseline percentage. To calculate the index, we divide Southwest’s followers' interest percentage by the baseline percentage.
About 60% of Southwest’s followers are interested in music. If 90% of the baseline’s followers are interested in music, the index would be 0.67 (60%/90%) meaning Southwest followers have a relatively weak interest. If 30% of the baseline’s followers are interested in music, the index would be 2.0 (60%/30%) meaning Southwest followers have a relatively strong interest in music.
For this article, Delta, United, and American Airlines’ will serve as the baseline, so we will be comparing Southwest followers to the other airlines’ followers. I will refer to Delta, United, and American as "the other airlines" from now on.
54.4% of Southwest's followers are sports fans compared to only 50.2% of the other airlines' followers: a difference of 4.2%. The difference may seem insignificant, but when you consider these airlines’ 6.4 million Twitter followers combined, it is a wide gap. That is good news for Southwest and another excellent reason to explore sports sponsorships.
Zoomph also provides data on interest in specific leagues. 23.7% of Southwest's followers watch the NFL, which makes it the most popular league. Similar to the SBRnet survey, the MLS (3.4%) is at the bottom of the list. Southwest is an (almost entirely) domestic airline, so these results make sense. The NFL is the most popular league in the United States, and Southwest flies mostly domestically. Soccer is more popular among Europeans, and Southwest does not fly anywhere near Europe. It is not surprising to see more interest in the NFL and less interest in the MLS.
Just because the NFL is the fan favorite does not mean it is the most important. We know Southwest followers love the NFL, but so does everybody else; it is the most popular league in the country! 23.7% of Southwest fans follow the NFL, but so do 20.0% of the other airlines' fans.
23.7% divided by 20.0% tells us Southwest fans are 1.19 times more likely to follow the NFL. A 1.19 'over-index' is strong, but it is not the strongest league index. Again, the NFL is the fan favorite, but we would like to see a slightly better index. So what league are Southwest followers most interested in compared to the other airlines?
14.8% of Southwest fans follow the MLB compared to only 11.3% of Delta, United, and American Airlines fans. 14.8% divided by 11.3% means Southwest fans are 1.31 times more likely to follow the MLB. If the other three airlines have 1,000,000 fans interested in the MLB, Southwest has 1,310,000. Wow!
This 1.31 index is the most significant distinction between Southwest followers and the other airlines. Because of this interest relative to their competitors, the MLB would be an excellent place for Southwest to look for additional partnerships.
Just as we did for each league, Zoomph allows us to explore interest in specific teams. The Philadelphia Phillies (1.59) and the Kansas City Royals (1.45) top the MLB Index List. The overall MLB index (1.31) is strong, and these individual team indexes are even stronger. If the other airlines have 100,000 Royals fans, Southwest has 145,000. That is significant!
Coincidentally, Southwest is looking to expand in Kansas City. The airline hopes to increase its flights there by about 30% next year (Meyers, 2022). Southwest sees real growth potential in Kansas City, and it makes sense to pair that with a Royals partnership.
The Astros, Orioles, and Diamondbacks are all in the top 8 of the MLB Index List. These teams are in Houston, Baltimore, and Phoenix, which are major focus cities for Southwest. If a Royals partnership is not possible, the Diamondbacks, Orioles, and Astros are reasonable alternatives.
Speaking of Kansas City, Southwest followers are big fans of the Super Bowl Champion, Kansas City Chiefs. Southwest fans are 1.35 times more likely to follow the Chiefs, which is the strongest index of any NFL team. Kansas City has lots of potential for Southwest Airlines at the airport and the stadium.
Nashville is another critical city for Southwest. It is their 8th busiest city, and Southwest carries about 6 million passengers through the airport each year. To the west of the airport is the Tennessee Titans' Nissan Stadium. The Titans (1.27) are number two on the NFL Index List. A partnership with the Chiefs or the Titans would be a great option for Southwest to increase awareness in key cities.
Below the Titans on the NFL index list are the Texans, Ravens, and Cardinals. Sound familiar? Like the Astros, Orioles, and Diamondbacks, these teams are from Houston, Baltimore, and Phoenix, respectively. Each of these teams is near the top of their respective index list. The airports in these cities are also some of Southwest’s busiest.
We have talked a lot about the partnerships that Southwest should pursue. Now, let’s look at which partnerships they should avoid.
New York City is not a focal point for Southwest, so there is no reason to pursue a partnership there. On both the NFL and the MLB Index list, you will notice the Giants and the Mets towards the bottom. These teams have particularly weak interest compared to the other airlines.
The Falcons and the Braves would not be good options for Southwest either. Although Southwest is growing in Atlanta, Delta has an established presence as “Atlanta’s hometown airline.” There is no need to try to penetrate that market. It would be expensive and likely ineffective.
The MLB and the NFL are the only leagues that rank top 3 in both percentage and index for Southwest followers. The NFL index is only 1.19, but 23.7% of Southwest fans follow the league. That is 500,000 people on Twitter alone! The MLB’s percentage is only 14.8%, but the index is the strongest at 1.31. If the other airlines have 1,000,000 passengers following the MLB, Southwest has 1,310,000! Both leagues are necessary for Southwest to explore.
These are just a few examples of what could become successful sports sponsorships for Southwest Airlines. Southwest fans are 1.45 times more likely to be Royals fans, 1.35 times more likely to be Chiefs fans, and 1.27 times more likely to be Titans fans. On top of that, Southwest is already planning a rapid expansion for both Kansas City and Nashville. With an established fanbase in these important cities, why wouldn't Southwest consider partnering with these teams?
Bureau of Transportation Statistics. "Domestic Market Share of Leading U.S. Airlines from January to December 2021*." Statista, Statista Inc., 11 Mar 2022, https://www-statista-com.ezproxy.samford.edu/statistics/250577/domestic-market-share-of-leading-us-airlines/
Masters, J. (2022, September 21). Southwest Airlines CEO: 'Nashville is hugely important' as airline eyes future Music City base. Bizjournals.com. Retrieved December 28, 2022, from https://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/news/2022/09/21/southwest-airlines-ceo-base-nashville-flights.html
Meyer, J. (2022). Southwest Airlines Kansas City Flight Projections. LinkedIn. Retrieved December 23, 2022, from https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:7011342934948139008/.
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About the Author
Matthew Madden is a junior student-athlete at Samford University. He is studying economics, sports marketing, and data analytics.