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Digital Takes The Court For March Madness

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Fans who can't catch all the NCAA March Madness games on TV this month(and who can?) will once again have the option to check out the action online—and where the eyeballs go, so do the advertisers. Web watchers this year can see "highlights" from tournament games that haven't yet taken place, but have been played virtually by thousands of Xbox gamers taking part in a Pontiac promotion. Cingular Wireless will be providing a digital "halftime show" for online viewers, and State Farm will help generate excuses for fans trying to get some privacy to watch in the office.

Such efforts are the latest pieces of evidence that big-event TV advertising is jumping from the small screen to many screens, as consumers turn to digital media to discuss, dissect and even follow the action. Super Bowl advertisers like Nationwide, Pepsi and Snickers used the Web to extend the buzz from the game, while Dove made it an integral part of its Academy Awards campaign last month. The average price for a 30-second spot during the tournament ranges from $100,000 to $1.2 million.

"The writing's been on the wall for a while," said Mark-Hans Richer, marketing director for Pontiac. "While TV is the dominant medium for live events, when you have a passionate event like the Final Four, that passion finds itself in many places."

The biggest online venue for NCAA advertisers will be March Madness on Demand, CBS' live streaming of games that for the second year is free to consumers, thanks to in-stream ads. Last year, CBS broadcasted nearly 270,000 streams simultaneously and 19 million in total during the tournament. Steve Snyder, COO of CBS Interactive, said it has more than doubled capacity this year to accommodate about 400,000 video streams simultaneously.

The large expected audience has helped CBS entice more companies to run spots online, inking 31 advertisers this year, up from 20 last year, about 80 percent of which also advertise during the telecast. TV advertisers Pontiac, State Farm, Cingular and Pepsi are all running spots on MMOD. CBS executives said revenue from MMOD would double this year.

Cingular Wireless, a heavy advertiser during the tournament telecast, is running spots on MMOD this year for the first time, including custom executions and sponsoring a new on-demand halftime show. "We used to plan TV first and everything follows," said Chris Riehn, associate director of media at Cingular. "Now we look at it as a basketball budget, not a TV budget."

For some advertisers, however, repurposed TV spots shown online are just a start.

Pontiac is turning its Virtual Final Four Tournament into consumer-generated media. The tournament's 2,000 participants will compete against each other in College Hoops 2K7 through Web-connected Xbox consoles, creating the basis for the Web campaign by compiling predictive data on how the games will turn out. Last year, the faux tournament results were accurate predictions of the real games 70 percent of the time, Pontiac said.

Matt Story, associate director of Play, a division of Publicis' Denuo, said the site would tide fans over during the tournament's "dead period" when games are not played. The predictions (and video-game highlights) of which team will win and what players will shine tap into regular fan behavior during that time. "We aren't looking at this as advertising but as content," he said.

State Farm, another heavy TV advertiser during the tournament, has added a digital component in the form of a "fan toolkit" that ostensibly helps employees follow the action from their desks. In addition to standard fare like an office excuse generator and a printable "do not disturb" doorknob hanger, the toolkit taps into the latest Web ad craze, widgets, to help those actually busy with work stay connected. Visitors to the State Farm site can download to their desktop a bobblehead doll widget that shows real-time feeds of game scores from ESPN.com.

"We're trying to attract a crowd to what we're doing rather than interrupt them," said Kevin Flatt, ecd of Omnicom's Tribal DDB in Chicago, State Farm's Web agency. Some of State Farm's in-game TV ads will refer fans to the site for the toolkit, and it will advertise the toolkit on sports Web sites.

For some advertisers, the Web is serving as a substitute, not a complement, for TV ads. Hewlett-Packard is not running TV spots with CBS, but it's not sitting out the action. Instead, with Web agency Modem Media, it has hooked up with Yahoo to create Hewlett-Packard Courtside, a Web site that uses the portal's many social media resources, like photo-sharing site Flickr and Q&A service Yahoo Answers, to create a hub for fans to debate and interact, even send taunts to friends whose teams lose.

"We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to provide a full experience for users as opposed to just plunking our ads where there's a lot of traffic," said Mary Bermel, director of interactive and emerging media at HP.

Will the flurry of digital efforts cut into TV ads around the event? Not so far, according to CBS execs. The network is on track to sell out its commercial inventory and rake in nearly $100 million from the tournament, with commercial rates up at least 5 percent. Richer agreed that Pontiac's digital efforts are not cutting into its spending with CBS because it can offer ad options beyond TV spots. "These big media companies are getting smarter and better with the kind of nontraditional media opportunities they can offer," he said.