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March Madness Marketing: Another Slam Dunk for the NCAA in 2016

03/11/2016 07:14 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2016
  • Ira Kalb Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California

Although it is a non-profit organization, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) continues to do a brilliant job of marketing its March Madness men's college basketball tournament, which is celebrating its 78th year in 2016.

A brief history

The NCAA started this tournament in 1939 at an old gym at Northwestern University with 8 teams and little media coverage since TV was in its infancy. Today, the competition has grown to 68 teams over three weeks competing in regional tournaments and culminating in a final contest between the top two. This year the contest will include 67 games that can be watched live, streamed online or viewed later.

March Madness has grown into the most popular sports showcase for advertisers ahead of the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball post-season contests. In 2010, the NCAA was able to parlay this popularity into a TV rights agreement worth $10.8 billion over 14 years.

Branding the tournament and playoffs

With a penchant for alliteration, the NCAA has created brand identities for the entire tournament and interim playoffs by giving them names such as March Madness, Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four. This year, they are even branding the day on which the brackets will be chosen as Selection Sunday. Even non-fans hear these words from sportscasters, late-night TV hosts and comedians. They pass them on to their friends via word-of-mouth and social media. They also attend branded parties, buy advertised products and participate in office "bracket pools." This gets advertisers excited by the prospect of reaching a much larger, highly-engaged audience of fans and non-fans alike -- enabling them to leverage their marketing investment.

Ever-expanding media coverage

Media coverage has grown to four television networks (CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV) and numerous radio and online websites, such as cbssports.com and ncaa.com -- enabling fans to watch the games and interact with each other on their mobile devices. March Madness also has its own channel on YouTube YouTube.com/MarchMadness. The NCAA also offers March Madness Live (MML) with enhanced coverage over 12 platforms including desktop computers, Amazon Fire tablets, Amazon Fire TV, iPhone, iPad, Android handset, Android tablet, Windows handset, Windows desktop, Apple TV, Apple Watch, Roku players and Roku TV models.

If that is not enough, there is also the Game Center, Video on Demand, and the Capital One NCAA March Madness Bracket Challenge amongst other contests, apps, and information sources.

Promoting the NCAA brand through online and social media

In addition to traditional TV and radio channels, historical content and commentary are distributed online through favored fan sites, such as Yahoo!, CBS, ESPN and MML. Just about everyone involved with the tournament also communicates via popular social media sites.

  • Facebook. March Madness has a Facebook fan page with over 909,159 fans and "like" links to such other sites as NCAA, iHoops, CBS Sports and many other sports links. Each of these, in turn has their own like links leading to additional Facebook word-of-mouth pyramids.
  • Twitter. The tournament is a major trend on Twitter with its own pyramid of followers (over 418,000 as of this writing).
  • YouTube. Search results for March Madness yielded 787,000 results, and the tournament has not even started! People can watch videos of games they missed or make their own commentary videos that help to further promote the brand.
  • Coke Zero™ NCAA March Madness social arena. This has new game features and tools to help fans pick brackets and offers a chance to enter a sweepstakes to attend the 2017 Final Four in Phoenix.

What organizations can learn from March Madness Marketing

By examining the marketing techniques used by the NCAA, marketers can perhaps learn how to better do the following:

  1. Create names, slogans and logos that are easy to remember. If they are, people will broadcast them for you and further your brand reach, frequency, and engagement.
  2. Apply branding and promotion techniques employed by March Madness.
  3. Create contests, apps, and games as an effective way to teach prospects and customers the benefits of your products while they have fun competing for prizes.
  4. Generate newsworthy events that capture the imagination of the news media so they will promote them for you at no charge. Nike is perhaps one of the best examples of using the news media as part of their marketing strategies.
  5. Provide traditional, digital, and social media with the information they need to publicize your products and events for free.
  6. Tie-in with events such as March Madness to leverage your brand and promotion.

The NCAA has achieved a slam-dunk

Even though the NCAA is a non-profit organization that many would not associate with brilliant marketing, they have, once again, done an enviable job of taking the March Madness Tournament and turning into one of the most popular sports showcases for advertisers - even beating the professional sports league playoff games.

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