MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

March Adness: NCAA Hoops as a Brand | March 21, 2011

Despite the same riveting ratio of underdog victories, buzzer-beating finishes and career-making plays, this year’s March Madness tournament — the annual NCAA basketball championship, which started last week and runs until April 4th — is quite unlike years past. Certain differences are purely structural: this is the first tourney, for instance, to feature 68 teams instead of the usual 65. But other changes have fundamentally reoriented the media frenzy that surrounds each game, as well as the corporate partnerships that determine broadcast schedules and channels.

In years past, CBS purchased exclusive ownership of each and every game for the duration of the tournament, and its production team would switch between them as necessary to show viewers the most exciting moments. This gave CBS complete editorial control, single-channel audience convergence and, most critically, the full share of advertising profits: since 2001, 280 unique marketers have accumulated a $4.8 billion tab in ad spending, making college basketball second only to professional football when it comes to moneymaking American sports traditions. (A 30-second ad during April 4th’s championship game will cost around $1.2 million, as compared to the $3 million for the same duration during last month’s Super Bowl.) To host the games, CBS paid upwards of $10 billion for broadcasting rights.

This year, however, the costs are split between CBS and Time Warner’s Turner networks — a joint venture largely viewed as revolutionary given the rivalry that exists between the two media corporations. The point of the partnership is clear: the combination of the CBS network with Turner’s three cable stations — TNT, TBS and truTV — allows each of the 68 games to be broadcast in full on television, a first in the history of this NCAA event. The move also eliminates DirecTV’s $69 Mega March Madness package, which used to offer the entire tournament schedule across four satellite channels to DirecTV customers only. As with previous tournaments, each game will be available for live internet viewing at a designated NCAA website, a move which further cements 2011 as the year when the audience dictates what it watches and where — or, in the words of Turner Sports President David Levy, the year that allows the viewer to “become the producer.”

What remains consistent, however, is the time-honored name and reputation of March Madness, which no amount of corporate restructuring seems to be able to shake. In fact, the NCAA basketball championship is the one sports event that has transitioned gracefully into the internet era — online ad revenue has grown 900 percent in five years — and has maintained integrity in the face of controversy and scandal. (The NFL, NBA and MLB have all suffered commercially from drugging accusations, lockouts and lawsuits; only the NFL, as aforementioned, outperforms March Madness in terms of ad revenue.) What, then, makes the NCAA so engaging as a basketball brand?

First is the timing of its annual tournament: the month of March follows the Super Bowl and precedes both the Masters and the NBA playoffs, the top commercial draws for golf and pro basketball, respectively. The tourney’s unique three-week duration, meanwhile, is replicated only by professional tennis (and, once per four years, perhaps soccer) in its ability to sustain an audience on a near-daily basis. But fan adoration for March Madness is no simple feat of scheduling; instead, the NCAA consistently promises and then delivers heart-stopping action and unbelievable drama year after year, all accomplished by fresh-faced kids just a few years out of high school. Because the players are neither paid nor allowed to appear in commercials, the image of the collegiate athlete is pure, organic and nostalgic for viewers who cherish their own athletic memories or the simple lost innocence of youth. And most importantly, those same viewers have myriad reasons to watch games: to support their Alma maters, to root for their region’s favorite team, even to cheer against a sworn enemy. (On a less righteous note, the NCAA bracket craze also translates into major gambling — fans participate in casual competition with friends, and Las Vegas hosts the highest volume of bets for any yearly sports event.) Clearly, the college hoops hoopla is no joke, nor a trend that will reverse any time in the near future — and with a plethora of highlights like the ones below, that’s undeniably something to celebrate.


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