Despite a softening ad marketplace, CBS and Turner Sports are close to locking in the first major sponsor of the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. 
While no major deals have been finalized, multiple sources tell Adweek that CBS/Turner are close to wrapping a deal with a returning beer sponsor. And platinum NCAA corporate partners AT&T, Capital One, and Coca-Cola are certain to sign on as well.
Now in the second season of a 14-year partnership, the broadcaster and cable outfit have unleashed a full-court press on advertisers, using the success of the March Madness on Demand service to secure higher rates.
The online simulcast service was an unqualified success in 2011, serving up 43 million video streams across broadband and mobile platforms, an increase of 63 percent versus March Madness 2010. And with the tremendous boost in reach that MMOD gives the tournament--despite the proliferation of weekday afternoon tip-offs, office drones don't have to miss a minute of live action--the CBS and Turner sales teams can demonstrate that a record number of consumers were exposed to their clients' ad messaging.
"It's a matter of 'more equals more,'" says Jon Diament, executive vice president of ad sales and marketing at Turner Sports. "Whether you're talking about people watching on computers or iPads, there was an amplification of the audience across the various digital extensions. And...people stuck with their games and stayed put for the ads."
Matching the haul from the 2011 spring tournament will be no mean feat. According to Kantar Media, CBS and Turner had snatched up $743.4 million in ad revenue, up 21 percent over the 2010 tourney, prior to their partnership. (MMOD sales accounted for fewer than 8 percent of the 2011 total--but that just means it has growth potential.)
Chalk up MMOD’s record showing to a far more satisfying user experience. Improved load distribution did away with much of the buffering delays that plagued earlier incarnations of the service—so much so that the online experience was all but indistinguishable from the linear TV broadcasts.
“We took steps to make the event more ubiquitous than ever before,” says CBS chief research officer Dave Poltrack. “Rather than cannibalizing the TV ratings, MMOD gives advertisers another platform to engage their target demos.” March Madness’ digital extensions are particularly sticky; per IAG, brand recall for MMOD ads was double that of other online sports video content.
The one spot of bad ad news so far: The insurance category is a no-show after The Hartford elected not to renew its deal.
"Brands are really starting to re-evaluate the value of an NCAA tournament sponsorship," says a senior consultant for a sports-media rights group, who notes that March Madness is one of the most expensive propositions in media. "An advertiser asked to spend more money has a lot to consider before making that move. There are a lot of options to mull over."
Sponsors may want to lock in rates before Turner’s other basketball property slips out of view. “Given the NBA situation, I think they may get increasingly bullish with [March Madness] pricing,” says Kevin Collins, senior vice president and director national broadcast at Initiative. “Right now, the rate of change for sports inventory is about what you’d expect.”