Marketing Lessons from the NCAA's March Madness

Last Updated May 30, 2011 11:58 PM EDT


Marketers should take their hats off to the NCAA, a non-profit organization, for their marketing of the "March Madness" men's college basketball tournament.

The NCAA started this tournament in 1939 at an old gym at Northwestern University with 8 teams and little media coverage (TV was in its infancy). Today, the competition has grown to 68 teams over 3 weeks competing in regional tournaments and culminating in a final contest between the top two.

Media coverage has grown to four television networks (CBS, TNT, Turner Sports, and TruTV) and numerous radio and online channels, such as, cbssports.com, ncaa.com, and si.com - enabling fans to watch the games and interact with each other on their mobile devices. The NCAA also created March Madness on Demand (MMOD), an online HDTV channel that is completely advertiser supported. Last year, the MMOD service had 8.3 million unique visitors that spent over 11.7 million hours streaming live video and audio (disclosure: CBS owns BNET).
Amazingly, March Madness has grown into the second most popular sports showcase for advertisers behind the NFL playoffs and ahead of the NBA and Major League Baseball post-season contests. According to Kantar Media, the NCAA was able to parlay this popularity into a TV rights agreement worth $10.8 billion over 14 years.

How did they do it?

A Memorable Name

With their penchant for alliteration, the NCAA has created brand identities for the entire tournament and interim playoffs by giving them names such as March Madness, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four, and Final Championship. Even non-fans hear these words from sportscasters, late-night TV hosts and comedians. They pass them on to their friends via word-of-mouth and social media. They also attend branded parties, buy advertised products, and participate in office "bracket pools." This gets advertisers excited by the prospect of reaching a much larger, highly-engaged audience of fans and non-fans alike.

Communicating the NCAA brand through Online and Social Media
In addition to traditional TV and radio channels, historical content and commentary are distributed online through favored fan sites, such as Yahoo!, CBS, and ESPN, and MMOD. Everyone involved with the tournament also communicates via social media sites.

  • Facebook. March Madness has a Facebook fan page with nearly 200,000 fans. with "like" links to such other sites as NCAA (40,776 fans), iHoops (152,910), and CBS Sports (63,154 fans). Each of these, in turn has their own like links leading to additional Facebook word-of-mouth pyramids.
  • Twitter. The tournament is a major trend on Twitter with a pyramid of followers. The ESPN Tournament of Tweets is very popular with sports fans and as of this writing has logged nearly 3 million tweets.
  • YouTube. Search results for March Madness 2011 yielded 25,900 results! People can watch videos of games they missed or make their own commentary videos that help to further promote the brand.
What companies can learn from March Madness Marketing
  • The name, slogans and logos should be easy to remember.
  • Study and model yourself after successful campaigns.
  • Contests and games can be an effective way to teach prospects and customers the benefits of your products while they have fun competing for prizes.
  • Newsworthy events capture the imagination of the news media so they will promote them for you at no charge. Apple does this with their product announcements and by creating lines when they introduce new products.
  • Providing press releases, guides, and monograph style newsletters to the media can publicize your products and events for free.
How might you apply the marketing ideas employed by the NCAA to promoting your business?

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  • Ira Kalb

    Ira Kalb is president of Kalb & Associates, an international consulting and training firm, and professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California. He has won numerous awards for marketing and teaching, authored ten books and created marketing inventions that have made clients and students more successful. He is frequently interviewed by various media for his expertise in branding, crisis management and strategic marketing. Follow him on Twitter at @irakalb