Over the years, the early spring ritual of the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship has grown exponentially in scope and popularity. “March Madness” is now the second most popular sports event after the NFL Playoffs and their culminating championship event, the Super Bowl. Much like the Super Bowl, March Madness has managed to become a massive business unto itself, monetizing the annual competition through branding and advertising that resonates with the public’s love of sports. The NCAA’s latest television rights agreement for the tournament is worth $10.8B over 14 years.
So how did the NCAA manage to parlay basketball games played by unpaid athletes into a multimedia event that garners as much as $650M in ad spending from more than 280 unique advertisers?
First, the entire tournament is thoroughly branded, with terms like ‘Madness,’ ‘Bracketology,’ ‘Sweet Sixteen,’ ‘Elite Eight,’ and perhaps strongest, ‘Final Four’ heavily permeating the lexicon of the media in the month of March. Largely through word of mouth, now including across extensive social media networks, fans everywhere focus their attention, filling out brackets and investing themselves in the tournament. Advertisers know the level of engagement is abnormally high, presenting a fantastic opportunity to convey a message to a receptive audience.
Media coverage of the event now spans four television networks (CBS, TNT, TBS, and TruTV) as well as radio, online channels at cbssports.com, espn.com, and even mobile apps featuring live updates and streaming video. Viewers are tuning in to watch what unfolds in record numbers, with most of these channels running completely ad-supported. Tie in the aforementioned social media engagement, with strong trends across Twitter and brand interaction on Facebook, and the formula for why March Madness commands the attention of the marketing and advertising world is clear.
Despite its status as a not-for-profit organization, the NCAA has transformed its humble basketball tournament into a smartly marketed, highly profitable annual event that trumps the postseasons of 3 of the 4 major North American sports leagues. Businesses across industry should keep some of the tactics employed by the NCAA in mind while filling out their brackets each spring.