SBJ/April 11-17, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Final Four scores big with sponsor activation

Turner Sports and CBS executives breathed a sigh of relief to see the TV ratings up for the NCAA tournament in the new broadcast format, but the event also saw greater activation on site in Houston from the NCAA’s corporate champions and partners, as well as a handful of new names.

Unilever’s Dove for Men, McDonald’s, Turner-owned Cartoon Network, Buick, Pepto-Bismol, Upper Deck and the College Board were among the new sponsors in the NCAA’s fan-fest area called Bracket Town, held in the George R. Brown Convention Center. Infiniti, another new partner, activated at Reliant Stadium as the presenting sponsor of the “Tip-Off Tailgate.”

In just the second year of the reformatted Bracket Town, the NCAA increased its space to 385,000 square feet, up from 250,000 square feet last year in Indianapolis. That space was put to good use with more than 15 companies showing their products and entertaining guests with interactive elements, current and former coaches, former players and, of course, plenty of places to play basketball. There were more than a dozen half courts and 453 basketballs in the convention center.

IMG College’s events group runs all of the NCAA’s ancillary events, including Bracket Town and the Big Dance concert series, for Turner and CBS.

Dove for Men, McDonald’s, Cartoon Network, Buick, Pepto-Bismol, Upper Deck and the College Board were among new sponsors in the Bracket Town fan-fest area.
“Bracket Town was a huge improvement, and we saw the partners and champions respond with activation that was up this year,” said Turner’s Will Funk, senior vice president of NCAA partnerships and branded programming. “We had a lot of new brands that really enhanced the experience for the fans and gave them a chance to interact with their products.”

This marked the first time that CBS and Turner had worked together on selling the NCAA’s corporate sponsorship program, and one significant difference this year was the nonexclusive auto category. They made sure that the two new auto partners, Infiniti and Buick, didn’t step on each other’s toes by giving them separate spaces in Houston and on the air.

Infiniti sponsored the pregame show; Buick sponsored the postgame show.

Infiniti’s branded programming on CBS and online focused on the coaches; Buick’s branded programming focused on the good works of former student athletes.

Infiniti sponsored the first Tip-Off Tailgate; Buick sponsored the center court and a huge display area inside Bracket Town downtown.

“Our concern was making sure that they had very different approaches, and that worked out,” Funk said. “Both were able to carve out their own spaces.”

One of the few partners that didn’t return to Bracket Town was Lowe’s, which presented its Senior Class Award at Reliant Stadium during the teams’ practice day, but didn’t activate in the fan-fest space.

IMG said it still was tallying attendance numbers for Bracket Town, but expected the total to exceed the 55,000 fans who passed through it last year in Indianapolis.

Attendance for the Big Dance concerts was up significantly from last year, when 20,000 to 25,000 fans watched each day in Indy. The Coke-sponsored concert, which featured Kings of Leon, drew close to 50,000 spectators to Discovery Green, the park next to the convention center. The Capital One-sponsored concert Sunday with headliner Kenny Chesney drew even more, an estimated 65,000.

“Sponsor activation was up over last year, and as a result we saw a lot more direct interaction with the fans, including sampling numbers, which were up as well,” said Shea Guinn, an IMG College senior vice president and chief of the events group that runs Bracket Town and the Big Dance.

McDONALD’S GETS ACTIVE: One of the coups for CBS and Turner was the inclusion of McDonald’s, which has not activated at the Final Four in the past. McDonald’s has enjoyed pass-through promotional rights from corporate champion Coca-Cola for years, but has seldom done anything with them.

This year, Houston-area McDonald’s locations used in-store promotions to sell tickets to Bracket Town. McDonald’s space inside Bracket Town was an incremental spend and was not part of the pass-through rights the quick-service restaurant has from Coke.

“McDonald’s came in as part of the Coke family and they really helped drive ticket sales,” Funk said. “We’re looking to do bigger things with McDonald’s next year.”

Coke also passes rights through to Domino’s as the official pizza of the Final Four. Dennis Maloney, Domino’s vice president of multimedia marketing, said that the company already had a media spend on the NCAA tournament and that the new arrangement through Coke added to Domino’s presence online and on TV.

NEXT UP: INSURANCE, TECH: Turner and CBS have identified insurance and technology as two categories they’ll be pushing hard between now and the next Final Four in New Orleans. State Farm exited the corporate partner program earlier this year, and The Hartford, which has been the NCAA’s partner since 2004, has retirement planning in the financial category. Auto, home, disability and other forms of insurance are open.

A leading candidate to be the new tech partner is Hewlett-Packard, which was one of the biggest spenders on March Madness outside of the partners, Funk said. HP advertised heavily on the TV broadcasts and March Madness on Demand, while also presenting March Madness on Demand on the iPhone and iPad applications.

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