MANCHESTER, England English soccer club Manchester United (MANU.N) signed its first commercial deal with a Russian company on Monday, making state-controlled Aeroflot (AFLT.MM) its airline partner.
The deal confirms the appeal of the English Premier League to global airlines seeking to boost their brands, while reinforcing the growing influence of Russian money in European soccer in terms of ownership and sponsorship.
"We have 18 million fans in Russia, but we have never had a partner there," said Richard Arnold, United's managing director.
The five-year deal cements the arrangement until 2018, when Russia's soccer profile will be raised further by the country's hosting of the World Cup finals.
United claims to have 659 million followers worldwide and uses this reach to sell global and local sponsorships that make it the club with the highest revenue in the Premier League.
The United squad, which won the English title for a 20th time in May, and new team manager David Moyes appeared with Arnold and Aeroflot CEO Vitaly Saveliev to mark the signing of the agreement at its Old Trafford stadium.
Aeroflot does not fly to Manchester in northern England, but the deal will allow the 90-year-old airline to promote itself on pitch-side advertising boards at Old Trafford and on the club's website.
"We believe that such a great club as Manchester United will help us to promote our brand worldwide," Saveliev told Reuters.
Arnold noted that the club often has to rent aircraft to fly the team and guests to Champions League matches around Europe and on tours. He said that Aeroflot would advise on such travel arrangements.
The club is renting a Boeing (BA.N) 747 with business class, flat beds throughout, to fly the squad on a pre-season tour to Thailand, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong.
Aeroflot replaces Turkish Airlines as the 13th global sponsor for United. Though financial details of the deal were not disclosed, a club source said that the new arrangement offered better terms for United.
Aeroflot is a sponsor of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, Russian soccer side CSKA Moscow and the Brooklyn Nets basketball team in the United States.
Although United and Aeroflot may sound an unlikely combination, there is already heavy Russian investment in European soccer, through owners including Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and sponsors such as Gazprom (GAZP.MM), which backs a number of clubs and the Champions League itself.
Airlines also enjoy the exposure provided by Premier League teams through English soccer's huge global TV audience.
Etihad Airways is the main sponsor of United's local rival Manchester City, while Emirates Airline EMIRA.UL is partnered with Arsenal in a long-term deal renewed last year.
General Motors (GM.N) last year agreed to take over as United's main shirt sponsor from 2014 in a seven-year agreement worth $559 million, the richest such deal in soccer.
(Editing by David Goodman)