March Madness, the annual rite of spring for college basketball fans—and a marketing bonanza for brands—is upon us once again (starting March 15 and ending with the championship game April 6). The three-week hoops tourney generated more than $1.1 billion in TV revenue for media rights holders CBS and Turner in 2014, per Kantar, and both networks expect to see more gains thanks to growing digital investments from sponsors like AT&T, Coca-Cola and Capital One.
The NCAA's 68-team competition has become a cross-platform juggernaut, and CBS and Turner are leveraging ad-engagement labs, mobile video production houses and marketing stats centers in New York, San Francisco and Atlanta to serve an increasingly connected and social audience. New York-based Time Warner Media Lab, in particular, will assist sponsors with enough March Madness data to let them assess their business Xs and Os.
"We have eye-tracking biometric equipment where we hook up respondents to measure heart rate, skin response, breathing and nonconscious responses to advertising," explains Will Funk, Turner Sports' svp of sponsorship sales, integration and branded programming. "It's serious research."
Funk's division—which works arm-in-arm with CBS and the NCAA—runs the point on all of March Madness' digital and social extensions. He predicts a record-breaking year for revenue, adding that online inventory will be sold out this week, as 19 brands have nabbed roughly 60 percent of all available promos through category-exclusive sponsorships while various companies are buying up the rest.
"We have 15 new digital advertisers," adds Funk. "We've seen a trend on the digital side with March Madness that there's more demand than supply, which is always a nice position to be in."
Adweek caught up with Funk to talk about how the event may again deliver slam dunks for brands.
The tournament will be on in nearly every living room and sports bar. Some may wonder why digital is becoming such an integral part of the marketing side of this event.
March Madness is a premium video product. To give you some background, last year we did 70 million livestreams on broadband and mobile. That was a 42 percent year-over-year [jump]. And we did 45 million livestreams on mobile alone, which was up 71 percent from the prior year. So we've seen the mobile business increase exponentially, and that's driving lifts in digital platforms overall.
Isn't digital viewing mainly a Thursday and Friday afternoon office-cubicle phenomenon?
It's obviously going to be bigger on Thursday and Friday with your at-work audience, but the weekend is still a big chunk of it. In 2014, 20 percent of our overall audience watched the games via digital, which was up from 11 percent two years earlier. So it's nearly doubling. Our mobile app downloads were up 40 percent over the prior year.
How effective are the social brand extensions offered in your packages?
Well, we did a [Twitter] study that focused on the three weeks prior to last year's tournament and three weeks during March Madness. The number of tweets went up 58 percent for our corporate partners that were advertising on TV and in digital.
Twitter and Facebook are obviously givens in your marketing mix. But what about emerging platforms when it comes to your efforts? For instance, will your team be active on either Instagram or Snapchat?
OK. Can you say which one?
The specific answer to the question is yes. (Laughs.) We're talking to the different big players on the social media side. And I think Snapchat is one that we're hopeful to work with.
Snapchat is a bit like one of your properties, sports blogging site Bleacher Report, which seems like a nice "in" with Gen Y.
Bleacher Report is a big part of what we're doing. It reaches a younger demographic, and it brings us onto campuses. All three of our NCAA Corporate Champions—AT&T, Capital One and Coca-Cola—along with multiple NCAA Corporate Partners, will extend their NCAA campaign through custom solutions using Bleacher Report. We have a lot of creative people that work on that, and I would say Bleacher is a little more out of the box in terms of the kinds of opportunities that fit with that brand. Those include video via Bleacher's Team Stream Now mobile app, Web-based player-ranking and editorial-skin sponsorships and other interactive possibilities.
You mention custom marketing content with Bleacher Report. But I'm guessing brands will employ dedicated efforts across online destinations for Turner, CBS and the NCAA.
They're producing custom promotions, which could mean 30-second spots, [dedicated] social messaging and custom digital sponsorships. We did a cross-screen study with a company called Innerscope, in conjunction with Time Warner Media Lab. We saw that advertisers with custom, contextually relevant ads in the tournament had higher engagement than standard ads. It was a pretty significant advantage they enjoyed.
How closely will Turner and CBS work with sponsors for real-time branding?
There will be a lot of coordination between the corporate partners and our social media team. I'll give you an example: We worked with AT&T last year on its NCAA Courtside program where we tweeted out photos from behind the scenes at the tournament.
Let's go back to what you are seeing with on-the-go consumers. Are millennials ultimately driving mobile consumption?
We don't have specifics on demos on the mobile audience. Logic would tell you it does trend younger, but I mean we're talking about 70 million livestreams in terms of digital overall—so it's everybody, you know? To put it in perspective, we did 15 million total live hours of streaming on our mobile app, March Madness Live. The Winter Olympics did 10.8 million in comparison. So it's massive.
Internet ad viewability is a hot-button industry issue this year. But March Madness games don't seem to suffer such problems. Do you point out that advantage when negotiating deals with buyers?
It doesn't even come up because we are offering a premium product.
The eyeballs are right there in real time, and that's the beauty of live sports—even in terms of digital, right?
It is. And March Madness is a cultural event that goes beyond sports. It gets casual fans engaged.