SBJ/June 13 - 19, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Sponsors not sold on all NCAA sports

The words NCAA and championship, when uttered together, conjure up images of March Madness, but the National Collegiate Athletic Association goes far beyond basketball as it administers a total of 88 championships spanning Divisions I, II and III.

Coca-Cola has found value in activating at many NCAA title events, but selling sponsors on smaller, secondary championships is tough.
As part of an 11-year, $6 billion agreement that took effect in 2002, CBS Sports owns NCAA championship rights and is responsible for acquiring sponsors at the Corporate Champion and Corporate Partner levels.

These are the companies, the only companies, you will see activating at any NCAA championship, as they have exclusive rights to all 88 events. But sponsor activation at many of the smaller, secondary championships appears spotty at best.

Getting potential clients to see the value of the NCAA property outside of men’s basketball can be a challenge, as is selling some companies on the NCAA’s notoriously “clean” environment, one free of standard accoutrements such as signage and omnipresent logos inside championship venues. For some companies, smaller championships don’t provide the critical mass needed to justify the cost of activating around them.

The situation has the NCAA studying the prospect of adding a third tier of sponsorship that would give companies a less expensive point of entry to various championships.

Searching for sponsors

To date, the NCAA’s two-tiered sponsorship structure features three companies at the highest, Champion level: Coca-Cola, Cingular and Pontiac (General Motors). The addition of State Farm in March increased the number of companies in the secondary stratum to four, along with Kraft, Monster and The Hartford.

Corporate Champions pay $35 million on average annually while Corporate Partners invest between $10 million and $12 million, according to Chris Simko, senior vice president of sales and marketing for CBS Sports. Simko oversees a four-person sales unit headquartered in New York City that sells a combination of marketing rights and media inventory.

Greg Shaheen, vice president of NCAA Division I men’s basketball and championship strategies, called the far-reaching scope of 88 different championships “unique,” but acknowledged that the search for new prospects does take place along inherent ideological lines, which can narrow the pool of potential corporate candidates.

Both Pontiac (above) and Cingular have held promotions during NCAA lacrosse championships.
“There is an emphasis on more selective, more aligned-in-principle relationships with companies,” Shaheen said. “It is a situation where we’re looking to work with companies which have similar values and understand fully the NCAA’s mission and embrace it.”

Last October, the two principals changed the dynamic of their working relationship, as the NCAA took control of sponsor servicing and fulfillment, allowing CBS Sports to focus on sales.

In addition to identifying targets and generating leads, Simko’s group interacts frequently with groups such as the National Association of Basketball Coaches, National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and the College Sports Information Directors of America in an effort to custom-design proposals that will help extend a sponsor’s reach.

While the legwork can be time consuming, it is all part of the sales process, and Simko believes it pays dividends in the end.

“The design of these packages is as important a process with clients as sometimes the actual sale is,” Simko said. “You have to make sure you’re not trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, going out with a cookie-cutter package that may make a lot of sense for Coca-Cola but doesn’t make as much sense in the same form for a Kraft.”

One may wonder about a property this powerful having only seven companies on its roster of sponsors, a word routinely eschewed by those in NCAA officialdom.

The lofty investment levels and notable exclusion of BCS-controlled Division I football from the championship hierarchy make the job tougher, but Simko does not foresee adding more than a handful of companies at the Champion and Partner levels anyway.

His magic number stands at 12.

“That number makes annual activation against multiple championships really impactful,” Simko said.

Also impactful: the burgeoning reach of TV coverage for NCAA championships, which now appear on, in addition to CBS, such outlets as ESPN, ESPNU, CSTV, FSN, The Tennis Channel and The Golf Channel.

The fledgling ESPNU network reached a deal in March for extensive coverage of 10 championships covering all three collegiate seasons. The agreement runs through 2012-13. ESPN, which currently has the rights to 21 NCAA championships under a deal that began in 2002, has women’s basketball as the centerpiece.

ESPN’s ability to devote hours of coverage to championships, including shoulder programming, has helped build the NCAA’s brand. It also has triggered much discussion with CBS Sports of future sponsors being sold on a third tier, which would afford companies a lower point of entry in their association with collegiate athletics.

“We’re talking about it all the time,” Simko said, adding that endemic companies such as baseball bat or lacrosse stick manufacturers could fit the bill outside the Champion and Partner levels. “There could very well be a home for some of those kinds of clients in the secondary and tertiary championships as a third tier.”

The specifics of how these companies would be woven into the NCAA’s existing Champion and Partner structure have not been hashed out, but the premise is they would have rights around a particular championship and not all of them. In fact, no formal sales packages have found their way into the marketplace yet, but Simko continues to evaluate potential opportunities on a case-by-case basis.

Where they’re activating

Of the NCAA’s sponsors, Coca-Cola has the most comprehensive approach to activation throughout the NCAA championship structure.

Valerie Manis, director of NCAA sports marketing for Coca-Cola, said the company has targeted 25 championships for activation this year. “Our commitment to the NCAA from the beginning was that we didn’t want just to activate basketball,” Manis said. “We wanted to do all 88 championships. Our system is so big we can do that because we have a whole field organization built around it.”

Coca-Cola’s “Game Plan” activation guide is sent out systemwide, offering guidelines on taking championship promotions to retail, securing radio involvement, ordering point-of-sale materials and use of proper logos, among other things.

Coca-Cola has a traveling NCAA-based interactive exhibit called the Spirit of Champions Tour that can be set up at retail or outside a championship venue. Manis said the tour, which appeared at the men’s lacrosse championship in Philadelphia over Memorial Day weekend, is reserved for what the company deems to be the 15 most valuable championships during any given year.

The Final Four, of course, marks one of those championships. Coca-Cola used the occasion this year in St. Louis to stage Dasani Fest, featuring its bottled water brand during an all-day festival featuring concerts that also involved Cingular and Pontiac. Corporate Partner Monster held a similar event the year before at the Final Four in San Antonio.

Prior to the 2004 men’s Final Four, The Hartford came on board as a Corporate Partner.

The Hartford targets the NCAA’s 360,000 student-athletes with a financial education program.
Michael Johnson, vice president of brand management and advertising for The Hartford, said the company’s shared values with the NCAA and commitment to education — in this case, financial education — helped spur its “Playbook for Life” initiative, which targets the NCAA’s 360,000 student-athletes in an attempt to educate them on postgraduation matters such as buying versus renting, use of credit cards and lifelong financial planning.

The Hartford’s playbook platform, which has utilized former Notre Dame running back Allen Pinkett as a spokesman, has visited the campuses of Columbia, Rice and Duke. Additionally, The Hartford staged a “Playbook for Life” symposium on the Friday leading into Final Four weekend in St. Louis. ESPN and CBS Sports commentator Jay Bilas served as host, while NCAA President Myles Brand was among panel members.

Ensuring a rare presence at retail, The Hartford teamed with Kraft for a March Madness-themed promotion that awarded $10,000 in college scholarship money each day of the month.

“It wasn’t like a typical promotion where you’d give away a prize,” Johnson said of the effort targeting mothers and housewives. “It was about giving away something of much more value, which is the future of your kids.”

Still in the nascent phase of its NCAA deal, The Hartford’s efforts are heavily focused around basketball, in stark contrast to Coca-Cola. Asked if the company would activate in Omaha, Neb., around the College World Series, Johnson said, “Not really. We focus our efforts on where we can get the biggest bang nationally.”

Other sponsors do take advantage of activating at the lower division levels, as evidenced by Cingular and Pontiac’s involvement at the Division II and III men’s lacrosse championships in May.

Cingular’s “Allover Tailgate Party” allowed fans at both lacrosse championships the chance to test their skills on a lacrosse-themed obstacle course, download free ringtones, make free calls, charge their cell phones and experience new wireless technology. The company also sponsored a halftime promotion at the Division II championship, “Raising the Bar Shootout,” where contestants attempted to score five goals in 30 seconds to win a Motorola Razor phone and a $200 gift card. Fans signed up for the promotion at the Cingular tent during the championships.

Click to enlarge
Pontiac sponsored a halftime promotion at the Division III event involving a target toss where fans attempted three shots from five, 10, and 15 yards. Sign-up occurred at Pontiac display areas located on the championship grounds. The company also offered the chance to win a 2005 Pontiac G6 valued at $25,000 as part of the promotion.

While synergy among sponsors is seen with such promotions, the media component to these deals offers sponsors the chance to separate themselves from the pack. In 2001, before CBS Sports sold a combination of marketing rights and media, Cingular bought the network’s “At the Half” property. That remains unique to the company and cannot be reproduced for somebody else.

“Everyone is always trying to stand out and create their franchise position,” Simko said. “From a media perspective, there are a lot of unique qualities and characteristics to each one of these plans.”

Coca-Cola’s Manis said regardless of the national championship involvement, due diligence must be done on the local level, as was the case for this year’s women’s gymnastics championship in April at Auburn University.

“What’s important to someone in Auburn, Ala., might not be men’s Final Four basketball, but it really might be a women’s gymnastics tournament,” she said. “It’s important to understand the local market.”

Manis said the first step toward doing that involves working with the NCAA to determine the fan base (and matching it with Coke’s consumer target), pinpointing the proper brand to utilize, and then finally taking it to an appropriate retailer. Diet Coke was utilized for women’s gymnastics, with female athletes featured on point-of-sale materials, and a drug store program was chosen for retail promotion.

“It doesn’t make sense to do a promotion with women’s gymnastics inside of a fast-food restaurant,” Manis said. “We really try and make sure that we’re matching up our brand strengths.”

Conversely, for a men’s championship, Coke Classic or Powerade would typically assume center stage with promotional displays at larger grocery chains.

Coca-Cola has increased its activation at national championships in recent years, making its presence felt at both the men’s and women’s College World Series events (baseball and softball), as well as volleyball, among others. To Manis, therein lies the beauty of Coke’s involvement with the NCAA.

“It’s not just about one sport,” she said. “When you have NASCAR, it’s just that and there’s a lot of different corporate sponsors. Being able to activate all different sports, therefore, means we can hit all different types of our consumers. I think it hits every consumer segment.”

Kris Johnson is a writer in Charlotte.

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