It’s that time again. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament begins tomorrow, and brands are gearing up as never before, from official “corporate champions” to those that can suggest only the thinnest of possible connections between themselves and some sort of vernal activity.
Everyone wants to be associated with March Madness — an no brand has more at stake than the National Collegiate Athletic Association itself.
In the wake of fresh revelations in Sports Illustrated about college football programs’ tendency to look the other way when it comes to lawbreakers on their teams, and a fresh football scandal at Ohio State University, the national enthrallment with the biggest event in hoops couldn’t come at a better time.
The NCAA is eager to see how its latest tinkering with the tournament format will work. After years of complaints by major schools with good teams that were aced out of tournament berths by lesser teams that qualified by winning small-conference championships, the NCAA has expanded its field to 68 teams this year from a universe of 65 teams in previous years.
That means a preliminary round of four “play-in” games — to get to the final field of 64 teams — starts Tuesday night.
And, in fact, the earlier timetable, even though it’s by just one day, may prove the NCAA’s biggest challenge. That’s because America has turned into a nation of bracketeers as everyone fills out their picks to win games, enters them into brands’ various contests, and shares them in competitions with family and friends.
With one day less to prepare, millions of March Madness fans could be caught by surprise at the shorter turnaround. That’s one reason Turner Sports, in conjunction with the NCAA, has launched today as the first-ever National Bracket Day.
Turner Sports has transformed its Time Warner Center in New York into the Bracket Lounge. Brackets and expert breakdowns of the teams and matchups in each region of the country are available online via NCAA.com, SI.com and CBSSports.com. And there’s plenty more going on going on.
Besides the NCAA, the house that Ted Turner built may have more at stake this spring than any other media player.
Turner Sports is now powering March Madness on Demand, an Emmy Award-winning streaming video player for the web, tablets and mobile devices (MMOD was previously handled by CBSSports.com).
As part of their deal, Turner and CBS are making available on their networks — TBS, TNT, truTV and CBS — every game in March Madness, live and in its entirety — a first for the 73-year old championship. Before, fans of specific teams had to hope that CBS would be televising their favorite game regionally, or watch it on CBSSports.com.
Three huge heavyweights have signed on as "official corporate champions" for this year's March Madness: AT&T, Coca-Cola, and Capital One.
The corporate sponsors are being creative in how they leverage their sponsorships. Coca-Cola, for instance, is using March Madness as a platform for its biggest marketing investment to date in the Powerade sports-drink brand. Coke Zero, meanwhile, is sponsoring the social arena section of the NCAA website.
One interesting change in the brand lineup this year is that Pontiac is long gone as a March Madness sponsor – and, of course, as a brand. Until two years ago, the GM division had been a huge presence during the tournament. Last year, other automotive brands split up the sponsorship.
And while no car brand yet has stepped up again with the level of commitment to March Madness that Pontiac demonstrated, Infiniti is the one automotive brand that has stepped up the most. The Nissan-owned luxury brand is the only automotive “official NCAA corporate partner” for March Madness.
One element of Infiniti's campaign involves social marketing and philanthropy, by donating money to cancer for every pick, as noted in a promoted tweet:
Infiniti is launching a new M Hybrid sedan this spring, so it will be featured. “Overall, this resonates very well with our target customer,” Kathy Roznowski, senior manager of Infiniti media, told brandchannel. College basketball “indexes highest only after things like golf and tennis, because of the depth of the alumni support for the schools.”
GM’s Buick division is picking up part of Pontiac’s corporate March Madness legacy, by sponsoring post-game shows on Turner channels. A Human Highlight reel on ncaa.com/buick also offers inspiring stories from college athletes:
Beyond these heavily invested brands are several others that also have an official role as sponsors of March Madness.
Domino’s Pizza this year replaces Papa John's as the “official pizza of the NCAA” and is joining forces with Coca-Cola in a multi-year partnership. This marks the first time the reformulated-pizza brand has partnered nationally with collegiate athletics and Domino’s first national sports marketing sponsorship in four years. (Naturally, its Facebook page is all about March Madness right now.)
Reese’s is sponsoring a “Pick the Perfect Play” contest on the NCAA website, while UPS is supporting its retail outlets with a coach-centered campaign and a "Print Madness" promotion that's focused on its Facebook page:
Beyond those that have paid dearly for the right to associate themselves officially with the NCAA and March Madness is a raft of brands that have tried to figure out how to run in the tourney’s slip stream on the cheap. It is a marketing technique that was perfected long ago, as advertisers promoted “the big game” because they legally couldn’t use “Super Bowl.”
Now, brands have gotten pretty good at doing the same thing with March Madness. So, for instance Staples has become a name sponsor of Bracketology on ESPN. Yahoo and K-Swiss have partnered to sponsor “Tournageddon Yahoo! Tourney Pick ‘Em 2011” (good news for Kenny Powers fans).
And T.G.I.Friday’s is running a special menu and “Friday’s Fandemonium,” promoting game-watching parties and food and drink specials.
Some brands in this last category might want to step up their games. Applebee’s new TV ads depict a festive scene inside their restaurants where there’s some talk about basketball, and a waitress says, “Swish!” As it's not an official sponsor, Applebee's can't refer to "March Madness" and must use language such as "March hoops."
Here's its web spot, complete with "Game Day" euphemisms, which promotes Applebees.com/hoops which redirects to its Facebook promotion: