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Volume 21 No. 2
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A presentation makeover for tourney

The NCAA is loosening its restrictions on sponsors during the men’s basketball tournament, a move intended to modernize March Madness and give corporate partners more visibility inside the venue at the Final Four and NCAA regionals.

For the past few months, the NCAA quietly has been talking with its rights holders, Turner and CBS, about ways to give its corporate partners deeper integration on-site, most likely through signage and advertising on video boards and courtside LED displays.

These talks are part of a holistic review by new NCAA leadership that’s designed to incorporate more contemporary practices into its flagship event.

Mark Lewis, executive vice president of championships and alliances, and Dan Gavitt, vice president of the men’s basketball championship, are examining the full presentation of the tournament, particularly ways to enhance the fan experience at the games. Both Lewis and Gavitt joined the NCAA earlier this year, Gavitt from the Big East Conference and Lewis from Jet Set Sports, where he worked on Olympic-related events and hospitality.

Among the improvements they’re planning for the tournament are more sponsor integration, highlights and replays on video boards, closer fan seating and in-venue entertainment.

“People talk about the NCAA tournament being cutting edge. We’re just catching up,” Lewis said. “We’re kind of 15 years behind what our member schools are already doing. … So, we’re looking at how we present our championships to the spectators, the public and the student athletes. I think some of the things that our schools do in the regular season, and what the conferences do with their tournaments, is better than what we’ve traditionally done with our tournament. We’re trying to bring those ideas into play.”

Gavitt, whose father Dave founded the Big East and chaired the NCAA tournament when it expanded to 64 teams in 1985, said change comes slowly in the college basketball community.

“They’ve been used to things being done a certain way for a long time,” Dan Gavitt said. “Not a lot has changed in the last 15 to 20 years. Now it is.”

Almost any type of sponsor visibility inside the Final Four would be a drastic change from the ultra-clean venue the NCAA has protected in the past. Former NCAA executive Tom Jernstedt, who oversaw the tournament for more than 30 years, said he took the less-is-more approach to sponsorship from the Masters. He wanted the basketball front and center during the tournament with no distractions. That philosophy persists today, but changes are coming, possibly as soon as the next March Madness.

The NCAA has talked with sponsors, CBS and Turner about giving partners more on-site exposure, such as on courtside LED displays.
The only sponsor that currently enjoys any kind of courtside exposure is Powerade, which places its bright red and black coolers near the benches during the tournament. Powerade is a Coca-Cola brand, and Coca-Cola has those rights through its NCAA corporate champion deal.

The only other way that sponsors have been able to infiltrate the venue is through special promotions, such as the seat cushions that Capital One has sponsored at the Final Four.

But as technology inside the venue has advanced, the NCAA now appears willing to make the video boards and courtside signage at the scorer’s table available to its sponsors.

“There’s great excitement among the partners about this,” said Will Funk, Turner’s senior vice president of NCAA partnerships and branded programming. “There is a plan that we’re putting in place that will allow more than what’s been done in the past, in terms of corporate partner exposure in the bowl. You aren’t going to see logos all over the place. It’s not that. But you’ll see a difference in how the games are presented.”

The NCAA, Turner and CBS are still working on the look and feel of how sponsors will be integrated in the venue.

“There will be some changes,” Gavitt said. “How far we get with those changes this year versus next year or the year after, we’ll have to see. We’re still working through those details. There will still be boundaries. We want to make it clear that this is still a college basketball championship. It’s not the NBA and it’s not the Olympics.”

Greg Weitekamp, the NCAA’s director of broadcasting, said integrating sponsors now is easier because of the LED technology that’s available.

“The technology that’s out there today makes sponsor integration easier and provides more opportunities than just the old, hard signage of the past,” Weitekamp said. “With the LED signage, you can create very clean looks inside the arena.”

Since the courtside rights — other than Powerade — have never been available to rights holders and sponsors in the past, the NCAA is working with Turner and CBS to determine how those rights will be managed and sold to corporate partners. CBS and Turner pay an average of $786 million a year for the NCAA’s rights as part of a 14-year, $11 billion deal. The highest level of sponsors, such as Coca-Cola, a corporate champion, can spend as much as $30 million or more a year because it owns so many categories. At the partner level, those deals range from the high seven figures to low eight figures annually.

Funk credited Lewis with bringing a “breath of fresh air” to the Final Four planning since his hiring earlier this year to replace Greg Shaheen, the former head of the tournament. “He’s really brought some new thinking,” Funk said.

Other aspects of the Final Four are undergoing changes as well. The most noticeable will be the seat configuration in the Georgia Dome, site of the 2013 Final Four. The first four rows of seats on either side of the court have traditionally been reserved for media, but those seats will be going away.

Instead, the seating for fans will come within a row or two of the court. The NCAA is working with the U.S. Basketball Writers Association on how to relocate those media seats elsewhere in the stadium.

“This is going to be a really positive change for the fans, especially student athletes and their families,” Gavitt said. “When you think about the student-athlete experience, a big part of that is the families and this will bring the families closer to the court.”

They’re also exploring ways to add entertainment inside the Final Four venue, possibly even a concert between the two semifinal games on that Saturday, as well as a pregame concert prior to the Monday night championship game.

The Big Dance is a concert series on Final Four weekend that typically takes place in a city park, but no entertainment acts have performed inside the venue.

The NCAA also wants to make better use of the video boards inside arenas and stadiums throughout the tournament. In the past, those video boards have carried live action but very few replays or highlights from other tournament games.

The running joke is that fans can watch every NCAA tournament game on practically any device — “unless you buy a ticket,” Lewis said with a laugh. “Historically we haven’t shown highlights from other tournament games inside the arena. We’re going to work on that.”