It wouldn’t be odd that Los Angeles Lakes star Kobe Bryant and F.C. Barcelona’s goal scoring sensation Lionel Messi would share a commercial endorsement or two. But you would think it would more likely in a category such as athletic gear or soda. It’s not. Kobe’s a Nike and Sprite (Coca-Cola) guy while Leo shills for adidas and Pepsi.
Instead the two have a combined endorsement in the most unlikely of places, the front cabin of a Turkish Airlines jet. In a commercial now running in the U.S. the 6’ 6” Laker guard and the 5’ 6” Barca striker vie for the attention of a young autograph seeker by one-upping each other doing ball tricks in their seat and steadily raising the stakes to balloon animals until the boy drops them both for some ice cream presented by a friendly hostess. “The best fly with Europe’s best airline” is the tag line.
What this has to do with airline service isn’t clear, but this one advertisement — which has been viewed over 70 million times on YouTube — can explain the global economy and its two most important sports, basketball and soccer, in a single minute.
Start with Messi, the man known as La Pulga (The Flea), who just set a new scoring record by knocking in 90 goals this year. The notion that an Argentine- born soccer player who earns a living in Spain’s La Liga would be recognizable enough to sell products in the U.S. market underscores the idea that the soccer culture is firmly planted in America. Messi, like David Beckham before him, is an international star who plays for a team whose reach extends well beyond Spain. You see Barca shirts turn up all over the U.S., because both Barca’s and Argentina’s games can be seen regularly, on Fox Soccer, ESPN or Gol TV. And as the last election pointed out to the GOP, the changing demographics and expanding, and young, Hispanic population have Leo written all over it.
It would also be fair to say that Kobe Bryant is probably more recognizable in Europe than Leo Messi is in the U.S. Bryant has played in the Olympics twice and toured with the Lakers in preseason European trips. Basketball is big in Turkey, which has three teams in the Euroleague, which Turkish Airlines sponsors. One of them, Fenerbahce Ulker, beat the Boston Celtics in a September exhibition. (Then again, a lot of teams are being the Celts this year.) NBA games are televised regularly, so Kobe gets plenty of exposure. And unlike many Americans playing in the NBA, Kobe is worldly. He lived for six years in Italy when his father played there, and speaks Italian and Spanish—pretty handy for a global spokesman. Like any European, he’s a soccer fan, too, having been to the Nou Camp stadium to watch Barca play.
For Turkish Airlines, hiring two sports superstars is a signal that the carrier and the country have arrived. Turkey has been one of the bright sports in an otherwise difficult Eurozone economy. The country’s GDP grew nearly 10% annually in 2010 and 2011 before slowing this year, but it’s still positive. That overall economic growth means more demand for flights.Turkey’s tourism industry has also been surging—great history and great beaches. Turkey’s central geographic location makes it a gateway to Europe, Asia and Africa. In the U.S., Turkish Airlines flies to New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Washington. Going from Chicago to Kiev? They got you covered. Revenues are up nearly 27% this year and last year the company was named best European airline by the travel site Skytrax. The carrier says it serves more countries than any other airline and just bought 15 more jets from Boeing to do it. Turkish Airlines is adding service to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Ndjamena, the capital of Chad, Kathmandu, Nepal, Mezar-ı Sherif, Afghanistan, Juba in South Sudan, and Lenkeran in Azerbaijan. These are far flung places, but it’s a good bet if Kobe and Leo stepped off a Turkish Airlines plane in one of them—not to mention Houston— they would be recognized immediately. That’s what makes an American hoop legend and an Argentine football wizard valuable to an airline company in Asia Minor.