Despite a sports partnership portfolio that includes deals with NBA and NFL teams, the Harlem Globetrotters and former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal, sports are not a marketing focal point for Carnival Cruise Line.
However, Scott Becher, Carnival Cruise Line’s vice president and head of partnerships, said that the company has used these partnerships to connect with potential passengers through fun activities.
“Sports is not an intentional strategic channel for Carnival,” said Becher. “We play where our guests play: entertainment, movies, TV, venues, sports. If it matters to our guests, it warrants consideration. So our partner portfolio mix can vary year to year.”
While Carnival’s entry into sports wasn’t fully intentional, it carefully selected partners that would help drive its dynamic business. Carnival Chairman Micky Arison is also the owner of the Miami Heat.
For example, the company’s multi-year deals with the Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints, and Miami Heat all aim to “weave Carnival into the fabric of key cruise market communities,” Becher said. With five ships in the New Orleans and Galveston areas, Becher said the partnerships help reach hundreds of thousands of potential customers within a day’s drive of the ports. Miami is the company’s headquarters and top port, while Galveston and New Orleans are No. 4 and 5, respectively, according to USA Today.
“Digital reach and engagement are important and increasingly valuable to us is a property that can be flexible with asset allocation as our partnership progresses,” he said.
The partnerships with the Globetrotters and Shaq help provide a national complement to that local focus, Becher said.
Carnival has looked to integrate the different partners in a variety of cruise-related activations and events. For example, former Saints running back Deuce McAllister leads a “Read and Rise” literacy event on a New Orleans-based ship, while Texans player Jon Weeks presents a military family from Galveston a free cruise, while Texan Whitney Mercilus participated in a marketing campaign where he “switched jobs” with Carnival Cruise Director Matt Mitcham.
Carnival also launched the “Carnival All-Fun Team,” an online sweepstakes for a free cruise with Drew Brees serving as the “head fun coach.” And with the Globetrotters, the cruise line offers joint marketing initiatives like the Choose Fun Zone seating area.
Cruise lines haven’t necessarily sought out cross-promotional partnerships in the past. Still, sports are a natural crossover, said Andy Gillentine, professor of sport and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina. He said cruise lines have lots of opportunities to get people involved through core products, attracting people who are sports fans to go on cruises or offer short shore excursions funneling passengers to games.
“That’s the way they want everything to look: fun,” Gillentine said. “All this fun stuff we can do, you can do. There is the physical value of the product.”
That sums up why Shaq was chosen in that ambassador role, Becher said.
“No one is more fun than Shaq, and he’s a perfect fit for our brand,” he said. “Shaq can even make serious topics more fun; our new Safety is Serious Fun stars Shaq and currently plays across our 35,000 staterooms fleet-wide, delivering an important message in a fun and memorable way.”
Becher said the activations are all collaborative discussions as the company shares marketing objectives and work toward building the brand while driving revenue.
The Philadelphia Eagles announced in December a cruise in March 2021, featuring current and former players who will mingle with fans. The seven-day trip will depart from New Jersey and will stop at several islands in the Caribbean, and is in conjunction with cruise line Royal Caribbean and First Class Cruises.
“We are always searching for new and innovative ways to bring our fans closer to the team, so we are excited to announce that this new partnership with First Class Cruises enables us to do that,” said Catherine Carlson, Philadelphia Eagles senior vice president of revenue and strategy.
Cruise lines are just hitting their stride and learning how to work with sports teams, so there’s likely more to come.
“Cruise lines are just starting to tap into these cross-promotional ways they can offer extra value,” Gillentine said. “We’ll see this grow quite a bit.”