Why Delta is doubling down on the Olympics through 2028

Team USA's Olympic team standing in front of a Delta jet
(Credit: Getty Images)

The airline has signed on as a founding commercial partner for the LA summer games.

Viewership of the Beijing Olympics this year declined dramatically from the 2018 winter games in Pyeongchang, but that’s not stopping Delta Air Lines from going all-in on the global sporting event through the next decade.

In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic broke out across the globe, Delta signed an eight-year commitment to sponsor the Olympics and Paralympics with NBCUniversal as a founding partner of the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles. As part of the deal, Delta will sponsor Team USA, starting from Beijing 2022 and running through Paris 2024, Milan 2026 and LA 2028.

“We are the founding sponsor of LA 28 and we’re working towards those games,” said Molly Battin, SVP of global brand marketing at Delta. “But in the time between now and then, we are the official airline of Team USA, and we're really getting behind the athletes.”

As a top-tier sponsor, Delta faced difficult narratives around the Beijing games, from the spike of the Omicron variant to humanitarian crises in China that led to diplomatic boycotts from democratic countries. But, according to Battin, leaning into stories about athlete resilience and triumph aligned well with Delta’s brand values.

“So much of our brand is our people: how they show up, the humanity they bring and what they do everyday to be there for our customers,” she said. “There are so many parallel stories between our people and what these athletes do day in and out.”

This year, Delta kicked off the partnership with a sendoff party for Team USA, whose athletes weren’t able to bring their parents, coaches or other support systems to the games due to strict COVID-19 regulations.

As the official airline of Team USA, Delta designed and painted an aircraft to take the athletes safely to Beijing, hosting a red carpet event aired on NBCU’s pre-coverage of the opening ceremony that was picked up on the Today Show. Delta followed up with a similar sendoff for Team USA Paralympians a few weeks later.

Delta’s commitment to the Olympics includes a long-term media partnership with NBCU, which holds the nearly $8 billion rights to the Games through 2032. The media network, using its “One Platform” philosophy, offers its founding partners white-glove service across its portfolio to get the most value out of the Games, said Dan Lovinger, president, ad sales and partnerships at NBCU.

For Delta, this included access to NBCU talent such as Seth Myers, who filmed a live ad for the brand, as well as exclusive placements and co-branded promotions on NBC Sports leading up to the Olympics.

“We tried to use a bunch of touchpoints that back up their shorter-term goals,” Lovinger said.

Delta’s partnership with the Olympics will culminate at the LA games, where it will make its biggest splash as a strategic play in an important market. In 2020, the airline announced a $1.8 billion investment in LAX airport to modernize and upgrade its terminals and make the city a major Delta hub.

Delta is one of the first brands to sign as an Olympics founding partner, a new premium tier offering from NBCU. Founding partners work with NBCU, the LA Olympic Organizing Committee and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee to “enhance the Olympic movement and create meaningful games that will leave LA in a better place,” Lovinger said. Other founding partners so far include Comcast and Salesforce.

“We're in the business of making sure that, throughout the next seven years, we're connected with Delta every day, week, month and year to manage shorter-term objectives across our portfolio that leverage the partnership they've signed on to.”

For NBCU, the challenge in delivering value will be to fight against falling viewership of the Games, especially on linear TV. Beijing drew the lowest U.S. ratings ever, declining more than 40% over the last Winter Games.

Lovinger argues that because NBCU’s Olympics rights cover all content regardless of the distribution platform, the company is in a good position to capture migrating viewership. He admits, however, that there’s a need to “reawaken the movement” after two consecutive games that took place during a pandemic with no fans and a long time difference in Asia.

“No matter how people are consuming [the Games], we're the place to come to for the ability to advertise,” he said. “But we have to continue to make sure the Olympics matter to people and are relevant.”

Battin also has high hopes for 2024 and beyond.

“We're optimistic that, as fans and people come back, we're going to start seeing renewed interest and higher ratings,” she said.

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