NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- First of all, let us stipulate that Americans often love their sports teams. They don't generally love their airlines, but they do love their sports teams.
So perhaps an airline can acquire love by sponsoring a sports team. Lots of airlines try it, providing sponsorships and also affixing their names to stadiums and ballparks. Airlines take this stuff seriously.
Delta (DAL), for instance, sponsors more than a dozen teams including the Mets, Braves, Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, Seahawks, New York Rangers and several college teams. American (AAL) announced in February that it will sponsor the Chiacgo Cubs, taking over from United, the Cubs' sponsor for about a decade. United (UAL) still sponsors the White Sox, Bears, Bulls and Black Hawks.
In this context, let us give credit to Etihad Airways, which said this week that it has signed a deal to become the exclusive airline partner of the Washington Capitals, the Washington Wizards, the Washington Mystics and the Verizon Center, where the three teams play.
Etihad chose not only to sponsor teams -- it chose to sponsor playoff teams.
And here, it should be said, Etihad chose to sponsor playoff teams in our nation's capital.
"This relationship is a sign of our long-term commitment to the Washington, D.C., market, which we have been serving since 2013," said Etihad CEO James Hogan in a prepared statement. "We are proud to announce this partnership, just as we are proud to connect the two capital cities of Washington, D.C., and Abu Dhabi."
In March, Etihad began flying a Boeing (BA) 787-9 on its Abu Dhabi-Washington route, where it began to operate two years earlier in March 2013. Even though 266 Dreamliners have been delivered worldwide, the aircraft still brings cache to the routes it serves.
Washington is also the city where officials of the departments of Transportation, Commerce and State are seeking comment on claims by American, Delta and United that three airlines -- Emirates Airline, Etihad and Qatar Airways -- have received $39 billion in government subsidies, which would seem to violate the Open Skies agreements that allow the airlines to operate in the U.S.
"The U.S. government takes seriously the concerns raised in the report and is interested in receiving insights and feedback from stakeholders before any decisions are made regarding what action, if any, should be taken," the agencies said last month in a prepared statement.
Is it possible that the Etihad sponsorships are a cynical gesture?
Jill Zuckman, spokeswoman for the Partnership for Fair and Open Skies, which represents the big three airlines and their unions in the debate over the Gulf Carriers, added: "No one in Washington should be fooled by logos on sports jerseys.
"Etihad Airways has received more than $18 billion in subsidies from the government of the United Arab Emirates, which begs the question of how an airline that has been kept afloat with subsidies can afford such costly sports sponsorships," she said.
Lastly, it is reasonable to ask whether regulators can be influenced by exogenous events. They always say they are not.
However, in the last major regulatory showdown in the airline industry, American unions strongly backed the effort by the US Airways management team, headed by Doug Parker, to take over American. After the merger was approved, with slot concessions at Washington Reagan National Airport, Parker said labor support was the "most noteworthy" component of "the overall outpouring of support," which he called "phenomenal" and a major factor in assuring a settlement.
Parker won American partially because he gained labor's backing, which in the end reflected a willingness to compensate people for their work, and that appealed to the Obama administration, especially given that the American/US Airways merger made sense.
In its lobbying effort, Etihad, loaded with state-provided money, spent some on our hyper-inflated sports economy. It's not wrong: U.S. airlines do the same thing. It should help with Washington consumers. But I don't think regulators will be swayed by it.