This weekend the Final Four will be held in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, drawing thousands for the weekend and millions on television. It is the NCAA’s cash cow, with rights fees from broadcasters CBS and Turner providing the lifeblood for many intercollegiate programs whose closet view of the court will be from a TV screen or a laptop.
A good part of the ancillary revenue also comes from NCAA partners, who use the weekend as the culmination of a year-long series of activations in the media, in the digital space, at retail and on college campuses, all designed to engage the passionate followers of college sport, from boosters and alumni to parents and students. From Unilever’s Dove campaign to Enterprise Rent A Car, to State Farm and Buffalo Wild Wings, the NCAA partners will put a great deal of their marketing muscle into the weekend to make sure that the massive spend they have made on college sports is getting the ROI they desire.
Now in other environs, a good part of that ROI can come in the form of game entitlement, in arena promotions and signage lining the court. However the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament , along with the Olympic Games, are probably the two largest global sporting events where commercialism has taken a back seat to a pristine environment. The court is not adorned with logos… there are no rotating shoutouts to buy this or that…there are not holograms for 1-800-something in the lanes under the baskets. Nothing…well almost nothing.
Those who choose to look in certain venues the past few weeks may see a Spalding sign along a stanchion at select arenas, a shoutout to the “Official Basketball of the NCAA Tournament.” You will also see now on the digital center court signage a series of rotating messages for NCAA partners, mixed in amidst the support messages for USA Basketball, scholar-athlete programs and tickets for future events. The messages do not shout, they whisper. They are more acknowledgement than commercial, but they are there, probably a growing whisper to test the waters and see if in the future, the corporate dollar will be big enough to break the logjam of the clean NCAA environment.
“The NCAA has always run a tight ship with regard to protecting its corporate sponsors, much like the Olympics has,” said Chris Lencheski, CEO of Front Row Marketing, the Comcast-owned firm that is one of a handful of companies that represents arenas, universities and leagues in the large sponsorship space. “There is certainly a demand for more corporate exposure integrated into the in-arena experience for the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and the recent integration of some brands into the game broadcast and into in-arena signage is proof that change may be coming, but it won’t come in a landslide overnight. It will be a gradual test to see what works and what doesn’t, and it certainly won’t be done in a vacuum.”
For its part, the NCAA finds ways to integrate sponsors into all other aspects of the tournament, from promotions and television and radio to the second screen, along with their TV partners. However little can beat the big, splashy logo that pops through when the “One shining moment” happens and David beats Goliath. That would be nirvana for a brand interested in NCAA activation, but for now, it is just a pipe dream.
“There have been rumblings for several years that the Olympics will change their pristine environment because the dollars and the demand are there, but it has yet to happen, and I think the ‘March Madness’ will follow that same route for now,” Lencheski added. The demand and the numbers for the tournament are certainly not decreasing, nor are the broadcast rights fees for the event. So for now, fans will enjoy the clean look this weekend of a Final Four almost bereft of corporate intervention. It is the NCAA brand that stands tall, the message goes, and for now, it can’t be bought.