SBJ/Feb. 14-20, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Unilever newest NCAA partner; State Farm out

Unilever is in and State Farm is out of the NCAA’s corporate partner program in a flurry of activity a month before the start of its basketball tournament.

While Unilever provides the NCAA another giant consumer packaged goods company capable of giving the Final Four a strong promotional push, the loss of State Farm comes as a shock, given the company’s deep investment in college sports.

The NCAA also is on the verge of bringing back General Motors, this time as a corporate partner. GM previously had been a corporate champion, the NCAA’s highest level of sponsorship, before breaking off the deal in 2009.

GM killed the Pontiac brand that year and later entered bankruptcy protection, but has re-emerged as a significant sports spender with a big Super Bowl buy for Chevrolet, title sponsorship of the World Golf Championship event at Doral for Cadillac, and soon an NCAA deal. GM is expected to feature the Buick brand in its NCAA marketing.
As part of their new 14-year, $11 billion broadcast agreement with the NCAA, Turner Sports and CBS Sports are running the corporate partner program, with IMG aiding on the sales side. They had no comment on the movement among the partners.

State Farm had been an NCAA partner since 2005, giving it a national platform around the Final Four to go with its 90 individual school deals and title sponsorship of ESPN’s college basketball “GameDay” show on Saturdays throughout the season. Todd Fischer, State Farm’s manager of national sponsorships, didn’t go into details of the decision to part with the NCAA.

“We made a strategic business decision not to renew,” Fischer said. “It was nothing specific. You’re constantly trying to put together the best mix to go to market with and we’re very proud of our programs and partnerships over the years. We certainly have no regrets.”

State Farm is the first partner to exit the NCAA’s program since the governing body struck its new deal with Turner and CBS, but the company, which also left its NFL deal two seasons ago, is expected to continue advertising around the tournament and college sports in general, Fischer said. In fact, one industry source familiar with State Farm’s plans said, “You won’t notice any difference, except you won’t see the blue disk,” a reference to the NCAA’s blue logo.

Sources added that State Farm walked away because of rate increases by Turner and CBS. Those increases were tied to the expanded coverage of the NCAA’s basketball tournament.

Whereas CBS televised early-round tournament games regionally in the past, each tournament game will now be televised nationally on CBS or one of Turner’s three networks: TBS, TNT and truTV. Ultimately, sources said, State Farm didn’t find the activation opportunities commensurate with what it was being asked to pay.

Specific financial figures of the corporate partner deal were not available, but they typically range from the mid-to-high seven figures. Those deals are rich in TV media around the tournament and digitally on March Madness on Demand.

The NCAA has been working in recent years to increase the activation opportunities around the tournament. IMG was brought on board two years ago to run the ancillary events at the Final Four and has rebranded Bracket Town as the primary fan destination during the event.

Bracket Town, typically located in a downtown convention center, is the primary activation site for corporate champions and partners during the Final Four. Last year, it added the Thursday night slam dunk and 3-point contests run by Chicago agency Intersport.

Corporate champions AT&T, Coca-Cola and Capital One also have sponsored outdoor concerts during Final Four weekend. Those champion deals typically range into the eight figures annually.

“The activation opportunities have expanded year over year and sponsors’ activation has become a more important element to the NCAA,” said Matt Pensinger, managing director of the Chicago office for marketing agency Jack Morton Worldwide. Pensinger worked with the NCAA on improving activation opportunities when he was an executive at Relay Worldwide.

“The challenge for the companies remains finding activation outside of that window of the Final Four,” he said. “As the dollars continue to go up, there becomes a more dynamic tension in that relationship.”

The NCAA’s corporate partners include Enterprise Rent-A-Car, The Hartford, Infiniti, LG, Lowe’s, Kraft, Hershey, Unilever and UPS. Kraft markets the Planters brand, while Hershey puts Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups out front.

Unilever’s agreement is expected to stretch across its men’s and women’s personal care brands, sources say, including Dove For Men+Care products. The Mindshare ESP division of GroupM negotiated the Unilever deal but had no comment.

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