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March madness has found a great player in Sprint.

As an official sponsor of the NCAA, Sprint has been gearing up for the big tourney since last month, running promotions in Sports Illustrated and USA Today -spreading Final Four fever to college hoops fans across the country.

Together with sports marketing agency Clarion Performance Properties, Sprint has tapped about 15 coaches to participate in the promotions, including Michigan's Steve Fisher, North Carolina's Dean Smith and former coaching greats John Wooden of UCLA and Jud Heathcote, the Michigan State coach who won the national championship with player Earvin "Magic" Johnson.


Two-page "spreadvertorials" appearing in Sports Illustrated for six weeks leading up to the Final Four feature interviews with coaches about how they keep in touch with former players. Each ad, specifically targeted to certain readers through Sports Illustrated's circulation database, presents various offers and savings on Sprint services.

"Our promotions are meant to equally build brand equity with actual business," said Mike Goff, Sprint's director of corporate sponsorship marketing.

Starting last month and continuing each Monday through the Final Four, USA Today readers can call an 800-number from a Sprint ad to hear Sprint spokesman, and CBS sportscaster, Billy Packer interview a college coach on issues like player eligibility or recruiting tactics.

At the end of each interview, participants can vote on the particular issue being discussed, and are prompted to switch to Sprint long-distance service.

Eavesdropping Fans

"Sprint's NCAA sponsorship is about keeping customers in touch with Sprint and with sports that they follow," said Scott Becher, VP of Greenwich, Conn.-based Clarion. "The USA Today promotion gives fans a chance to eavesdrop on some great basketball conversations; and it gives Sprint the accountable results that marketers are forever trying to quantify when they do event sponsorships and promotions."

However, the newspaper promotion is but a warm-up to Sprint's "Call the Final Four," which also ran last year.

Sprint-on the day after the tournament teams are announced-in a page ad in USA Today will invite readers to call an 800-number and submit their picks for the Final Four.

When the field has dwindled to four teams, Sprint will determine who called in first with the correct picks. The winner gets a trip for two to the Final Four.

Looking at Lifestyles

"The NCAA gives us an opportunity to reach a target that plays upon the affinity a fan has with the sport," Mr. Goff said. "We try to find promotions that uniquely reach customers and prospects somewhere within their lifestyles."

Sprint's prepaid calling card, Spree, is also in on the action. Spree is offering a special collector's edition NCAA card that gives users a free 10 minutes of long-distance calling if they purchase a $20 or $50 card.

"The whole country literally gets caught up in March Madness," said Marlene Waltz, director of prepaid card sales and marketing. "College kids are a major target for the Spree card, so promoting a collector's edition NCAA card fits perfectly."

Retailer Support

Spree will support the promotion with local advertising handled in conjunction with its retailers. J. Walter Thompson USA, San Francisco, handles.

Collector NCAA Spree cards will also be given away at Sprint's Fan Jams-an on-site basketball shoot-out during the Final Four.

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