Could Snapchat Be a March Madness Player This Year?

Turner Sports' marketing integrations captain, Will Funk, dishes on college hoops

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?

Yes.

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.