- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

With the recession hammering corporate spending, the three weeks of drama that make up the NCAA tournament have become something of a safe haven for advertisers.

Broadcaster CBS Sports said it expects to sell more than 90 percent of its television ad time without lowering prices, even as advertising has dropped overall nationwide. While the network lost several advertisers, particularly those from the battered banking and insurance sectors, it has managed to fill holes with new support from the film industry, fast-food restaurants and even some automakers.

“Business is being conducted,” said John Bogusz, executive vice president of sports sales and marketing for CBS Sports. “The event is one of the greatest events that takes place every year. It’s the purest, most exciting sporting event in the country pretty much year in and year out. People want to be associated with the tournament.”

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CBS Sports’ advertising income is buoyed by an NCAA program of multiyear sponsorships, all of which were in place before the economy took a turn for the worse. Under the program, companies gain exclusive advertising rights for certain product categories and are labeled either “Corporate Champions” or “Corporate Partners” depending on their level of involvement. This year’s Corporate Champions include AT&T, Coca-Cola and Pontiac. Corporate Partners include Enterprise Rent-a-Car, The Hartford, Lowe’s, Sheraton and State Farm, along with new sponsor Hershey’s.

Advertisers said the tournament is a safe place to spend money on sponsorships and commercials because of high viewership, particularly among the desirable young male demographic. Officials from German automaker Audi, which will air as many as 10 commercials during the tournament, said the event is seen as one of the premier opportunities to gain customer attention.

“Audi in the United States has historically been known as the ‘great unknown,’ ” said Scott Keogh, Audi’s vice president of marketing. “We’ve really reflected our media strategy to be with really known entities. It’s not just about the game. It’s about the brackets. … It’s something at work. It’s something at all levels. It’s part of the American conversation, and that’s where our brand wants to be.”

The advertising, tied to the launch of its new Q5 model, is an upgrade from last year, when the company chose to buy ad time in just the top 18 local markets. This year, Audi also will be the exclusive sponsor of an iPhone application that will provide live scores and updates.

Other companies said the unique excitement and passion surrounding the event has allowed for more creative ad campaigns. VitaminWater recently got attention with a commercial featuring former Duke star Christian Laettner and former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino reprising their roles in memorable national semifinal game in 1992. Coca-Cola has several promotions, including one that allows fans to submit videos to show off their team loyalty. Hershey’s is using the tournament to launch new commercials about its Reese’s brand.

“Our customers are very loyal, and it’s been interesting for us to play off that loyalty that customers have with their college basketball teams as well,” Hershey’s spokeswoman Jody Cook said.

While officials declined to discuss financial details of the sponsorships, industry sources estimated that deals typically last between three and five years, plus option years, and can cost at least $10 million annually. Mediaweek, citing anonymous ad buyers, reported that the total volume of sales will reach $430 million, about the same as last year. The trade publication said a 30-second commercial in the tournament’s early rounds is selling for about $350,000, while the Final Four and national championship game could fetch more than $1.3 million.

The advertising comes even after a horde of blowout games led to a dip in television ratings for the tournament last year. Early indications are that ratings could rebound; CBS reported that viewership for the tournament selection show Sunday was up 9 percent over last year and was the highest since 2005.

Marketing experts said that sponsor interest has boomed in recent years as CBS began showing all out-of-market games live for free online and through a paid satellite package on DirecTV.

“The Super Bowl is a one day event, while this is a three-week window with network television, cable television and real heavy Internet,” said William Sutton, associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and a former marketing executive with the NBA. “It gives you three different platforms over three weeks with a lot of intensity. There’s a level of activation and involvement that you don’t have with a lot of other things.”

CBS said it has seen a 30 percent jump in ad spending from its online March Madness On Demand service, which drew nearly 5 million unique visitors last year to watch games on their computers. It even sold a sponsorship to Comcast for the so-called “boss button,” a feature that allows viewers to browse away from live games quickly in case they happen to be watching at the office.

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