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Brands Are Using College Basketball-Style Brackets to Drive Huge Fan Engagement

Slam dunk for marketers
  • March 8, 2016, 11:45 PM EST
  • Sponsored

Illustration: Jared Fiorino

The college basketball postseason exemplifies the ultimate in fan engagement. Last year's tournament in March logged a record 80.7 million live video streams, grossed 350 million social impressions on Facebook and Twitter and cost employers an estimated $1.9 billion in wages paid to distracted, unproductive workers. It's no wonder the three-week affliction that sweeps the nation each spring is called "madness."

Why do so many Americans tune in to a college basketball tournament after largely ignoring the sport all year? One word: brackets. In 2015 an estimated 40 million Americans filled out a tournament bracket, betting an estimated $2 billion. From a marketing perspective, brackets are ingenious—they're the foundation of fantasy sports—because they give every fan a reason to watch all the games, not just the ones featuring their favorite teams.

For brands working to build their own fan engagement, there's much to be gained by tapping into the rabid enthusiasm inspired by college basketball tournaments and other sporting events, teams and leagues. A study by Catalyst revealed that two-thirds of avid sports fans have liked a brand on Facebook based on its promotion during a sporting event or broadcast. Even more compelling, a third of these fans say they've made a purchase from that sponsor as a result.

Brands Using Brackets

So how can a brand capitalize on sports fans' fervor? Some are taking a page from the tournament playbook and creating brackets of their own. In fact, the bracket has already proven successful beyond the bounds of college basketball. Last November, Major League Soccer (MLS) partnered with AT&T to take advantage of America's bracket mania, tweaking the concept to enable fans to vote for the AT&T Goal of the Year. 

Click to view the MLS and AT&T Goal of the Year bracket.


The interactive platform used by MLS and AT&T was created using BracketPro, powered by Omnigon, and featured one-minute video clips of the 64 best goals of the 2015 MLS season. During the six-week voting period, fans selected their favorites from each of the four regions in playoff-style head-to-head matchups. The winner: Krisztian Nemeth's improbable five-on-one triumph in the final minutes of Sporting Kansas City's victory over the Portland Timbers on Oct. 3.

For AT&T and MLS, it was a huge success. Users spent an average of 13.5 minutes on the bracket page, watching more than three videos per session and voting more than three times. Overall, the competition produced 720,000 total votes—more than 100,000 per week.

Gamification FTW

This type of marketing technique, known as gamification, can be a powerful strategy for connecting with core consumers—as well as customers beyond a brand's normal reach.

"Gamification, if done as well as it was done for [college basketball], could earn you customers you have absolutely no right to earn otherwise," said Forbes contributor Will Burns in an article about the marketing magic of the sports bracket.

So instead of sitting on the sidelines during sporting events, sponsors can become part of the action. BracketPro's fully customizable software platform enables brands of all kinds to build an engaging channel to consumers, in a sports-centric context that's primed for real results. Users can share their votes within the bracket via social media, increasing engagement by driving traffic back to the bracket; sponsors can track voting statistics, page views and social shares, as well as edit and create new brackets.

As fans turn increasingly to social media before, during and after sporting events—more than half report using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram while a game is underway—the stakes for fostering fan engagement are higher than ever. Yet with an assist from the proper tools, brands can draw up an engagement strategy worthy of a highlight reel.