A year ago this week, Invesco was on the verge of unleashing its biggest sports marketing play in several years with a March Madness campaign that leaned into passionate—and large—college basketball crowds. But to this day, those ads have never run, because the NCAA pulled the plug on the tourney just days before it was set to begin as the pandemic forced the nation into lockdown.
“It was something to live through—having done all of the work, all of that strategic thinking, and then to find ourselves … in the middle of something that was so unknown at the time,” says Emily Pachuta, Invesco’s chief marketing and analytics officer for the Americas.
With the NCAA tournament set to return next week, much more is known about COVID and the steps brands must take to protect their media investments. But March Madness sponsors and advertisers are still dealing with plenty of uncertainty as they seek to get the best bang for their buck from a three-week sporting spectacle that will look much different than previous tourneys.
The entire event will be played in the state of Indiana, with limited crowds (capped at 25% of capacity) and played on a slightly condensed schedule. Social distancing rules will squash the kind of experiential marketing programs usually held at various tournament venues across the country. And brands, which normally feed into the phenomenon of people playing hooky to catch Thursday and Friday first-round day games at sports bars, must account for the fact that most people are still homebound.
The cancelation of last year’s tourney and the sporadic nature of this season—some teams had to take lengthy COVID-related pauses—has hurt college basketball’s momentum, along with the in-person attendance curbs, suggests Jeremy Carey, managing director at Optimum Sports, an Omnicom-owned sports marketing agency. “If you are taking fans away from being able to root for their team for a year ... it’s going to have some level of negative impact,” he says. Another potential TV ratings drag is that college basketball’s traditional powerhouses, such as Duke and Kentucky, are having down years and might not make the tourney.
Still, Carey says that the tourney—which ends with the Final Four on the first weekend of April—is “going to be the best media opportunity for any marketer within this time period. Whether it’s trending down or trending up, it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of anything else.”
In 2019, tournament ratings jumped 11% from the year prior across TBS, CBS, TNT, and truTV. And advertisers shelled out $910 million on TV ads, according to Kantar.
But total TV viewership of 2020-2021 regular season college basketball fell nearly 4%, according to Nielsen data. That drop, however, is not as steep as other programming, including the National Football League, whose regular season ratings slid by about 7%.
The tournament begins March 18 with the “First Four” games and will air across CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV as part of a CBS Sports-Turner Sports partnership now in its 10th year.
CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus addressed the potential lack of elite teams like Duke and Kentucky during a media briefing today, conceding that those blue bloods help ratings. But he added: “We are going to focus on the teams that are in there, and focus on their stories—and if the tournament develops like it always seems to, I think we’ll do fine from a viewership standpoint.”
Ad sales “have been remarkably strong,” he added, saying “we are just about about sold out of the tournament.” More than 100 brands bought ads with strong interest from insurance providers, automakers, financial services companies, restaurants and telecoms, according to Turner and CBS ad sales execs.
Recovering from last year
Last year’s cancelation forced the NCAA to renegotiate sponsorship deals, which are brokered by CBS and Turner.
Invesco, which signed its deal in late 2019, got a one-year extension as did other sponsors such as Nissan and Wendy’s, the companies confirmed. “This year is effectively year one for us,” says Invesco’s Pachuta. Some marketers are re-using content created for the 2019 tourney that never ran. Nissan will repurpose an ad it had planned to run last year showing a Sentra on an epic chase from the West Coast to the Final Four site—but the brand had to recut it to replace a scene of Atlanta, which was supposed to host last year’s championship, to Indianapolis, site of this year’s finals.
Invesco won’t run the crowd-focused ads it made but never used last year because “it’s just not appropriate” amid social distancing, Pachuta says. Instead it will run new ads from Grey New York starring CBS broadcasters Grant Hill and Greg Gumbel, including some that plug its “QQQ” exchange traded fund, deemed the NCAA’s “official ETF.”