Brand Strategy

How United Airlines is maxing out its Wrexham AFC sponsorship

As Wrexham’s front-of-jersey sponsor, the airline is visible in the docuseries “Welcome to Wrexham” and has appeared on the team’s celebrity owners’ social accounts.
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United Airlines

· 5 min read

Though they’re based in Wales and not a global city like New York, London, or Madrid, Wrexham AFC may just be one of the most relevant sports teams in the world.

That hasn’t always been the case. The team was ranked toward the bottom of the National League, which sits below the Premier League and the English Football League (EFL) in England’s football pyramid, when actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney made a bid to take over the club in 2020.

Wrexham has since been promoted in back-to-back seasons, but those successes aren’t necessarily what are drawing in big brands like United Airlines, which has been the team’s front-of-jersey sponsor since last season. Instead, the team’s off-field stats and the growing popularity of the docuseries Welcome to Wrexham, which has followed the team’s changing fortunes, have served as a major draw—even if United doesn’t actually fly to Wales.

“We’ll probably never fly to Wales, but it just so happens that one of the most popular soccer—football—teams in the states happens to play in Wales,” Maggie Schmerin, United’s chief advertising officer, told Marketing Brew. “The success of this team, through the Welcome to Wrexham documentary, through Rob and Ryan’s social channels, that was something that we wanted to be a part of.”

Flying off the shelves

Jersey sponsorships, though expensive, represent an opportunity for marketers to spread brand names far and wide: Not only do players wear the sponsor’s name on their chests for in-stadium crowds to see, but televised games bring additional reach, and fans often buy jerseys of their own to rep their teams.

For United, a jersey sponsorship with Wrexham meant securing product placement in Welcome to Wrexham, too, something Schmerin described as a perk in a world where ad-blocking and ad-skipping is widespread.

“We’ll be hard to ignore if we are literally a running billboard across their jerseys,” Schmerin said.

The jerseys don’t just appear in the series and in games—they’re getting plenty of traction among fans, too. When the new kits with United branding went on sale last summer, they sold out almost immediately. Since then, United has been leaning into Wrexham merch more broadly as part of its sponsorship, Schmerin said: At a game in March, United gave every fan who attended a free team scarf.

More recently, the airline announced that it plans to celebrate Wrexham’s promotion by giving select passengers on some long-haul flights limited-edition Wrexham pajamas and amenity kits with Wrexham-themed toiletries. They’ll be available through June and July, supplies permitting, according to Schmerin.

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The club’s promotion in and of itself has been giving United something to cheer about.

“Every time they’ve gone up, that just means more exposure on TV,” Schmerin said. “There have been more opportunities here in the states; I know ESPN+ has had some of their matches, and we love that…As the team continues to be successful, I think that’s another hook to draw people in to [watch] the docuseries, to become followers of the club, of the TV show, on social media.”

The captains

In addition to the reach of the team and the show, United’s sponsorship has also gotten it in front of the massive online audiences of Reynolds and McElhenney, who have more than 53 million Instagram followers combined.

Reynolds and McElhenney personally announced the start of the sponsorship last year in a video that got 413,000 views on YouTube and 6 million plays on Instagram, where the video was co-posted to both actors’ accounts. United TikTok ad campaigns involving Wrexham saw two times the airline’s average ad engagement rate on the platform last year, according to the brand.

A video showing off the new pajamas and amenity kits was co-posted on United, Wrexham, Reynolds, and McElhenney’s Instagram accounts, where it was viewed more than 39,000 times in 18 hours.

Beyond their star power and social reach, Reynolds and McElhenney pair well with United’s brand voice on its social channels, which is designed to be “witty” and “culturally relevant…something that seems to come quite naturally to those guys,” Schmerin said.

“They have their finger on the pulse of what will resonate, what’s relevant, how to bring that hint of humor into something, and how to make news in a world that exists in an always-on, 24/7 news cycle,” Schmerin said. “From a marketing perspective, they are wonderful partners and collaborators to us.”

Schmerin declined to share whether United will pursue an extended sponsorship beyond its current two-year deal with Wrexham, which ends in 2025. For now, she said the brand is focused on Wrexham’s summer tour in North America. United flew the men’s team to the states last summer, and will do the same this year for both the Wrexham men’s team and the women’s team, who are making their US debut in July and whose jerseys United also sponsors.

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