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March Madness. It's that time of year again. Time for hoop dreams, school pride and office pools.

The NCAA's annual college basketball tournament is the sports event of the season, the transition between the Super Bowl and the National Basketball Association playoffs. Some 300,000 spectators will attend 63 games at sites around the country, including Final Four weekend March 25 to 27 in Seattle.

That means signage and sampling opportunities galore for tournament sponsors. Right?

"Wrong. There can be no sponsor involvement on site. We want a totally sterilized environment," said Alfred White, director of promotions for the NCAA. Mr. White's job is to help meet the marketing needs of the NCAA's 16 corporate partners without overcommercializing college athletics.

The association doesn't sell sponsorships to individual sports; it's all 21 or nothing. The likes of Sprint, Frito-Lay's Doritos and Gillette Co. have paid an estimated $750,000 each for three-year corporate partnership packages.

The mania that March Madness inspires among students and alumni is manna for promotion-minded marketers, especially during the typically sluggish first quarter. For the first time, all 16 partners are executing some sort of consumer promotion tied to the tournament, said Jim Host, CEO of Host Communications, Lexington, Ky., marketing agency for the NCAA.

"It's a phenomenon-and it's growing," said Mike Goff, Sprint's director of corporate sponsorship. "Almost everyone fills out their own tournament grid, everyone has an office pool. In fact, our promotion plays off that."

The long-distance carrier's promotion creates an event within an event-a tack other partners are taking as well. The effort, launching today and ending next Monday, asks fans to phone in their picks for the Final Four teams. Print ads in USA Today this week explain the promotion and provide the 64-team tourney grid for reference. Whoever calls in the final four first gets to go to the Final Four in Seattle. Clarion Performance Properties, Greenwich, Conn., handles.

Doritos today launches a similar promotion on Prodigy and CBS Eye on the Net, the network's World Wide Web Site, called "The Road to the Final Four Sweepstakes," exploiting CBS' long-used tag for its college basketball coverage.

And for the third straight year, Gillette will stage in Seattle its "$1 million Three-Point Challenge," the culmination of a sweepstakes that began a year ago.

Corporate partners are getting more aggressive with their consumer promotions this year. Pizza Hut replaced its annual basketball giveaway with a 44-page championship guide that costs 50 cents with purchase of personal pizza and drink. Inside there's a Pizza Hut scratch-and-win game, as well as ads and merchandise offers from Sprint and NCAA licensees.

Pennzoil Co. is in the midst of a national promotion; General Mills dropped a free standing insert two weeks ago and participated in an NCAA FSI last weekend; American Airlines, Coca-Cola Co, and Pepsi Cola Co.'s All-Sport isotonic drink will canvass the Pacific Northwest with promotional activities.

There is a way for NCAA sponsors to get involved on site through FanJam!, an interactive theme park organized by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Now in its third year, the event isn't connected to the NCAA in any way, but its corporate partners have exclusive involvement. Foot Locker runs a retail space there, and Sprint sponsors a three-point shooting contest.

Most of the partners are supporting their efforts with advertising on CBS' coverage of the championship. Sprint is said to have bought a $3.5 million ad package; J. Walter Thompson USA, San Francisco, handles. Doritos has bought presenting sponsorship of "Inside the Games With Michael Jordan," a TV special airing between games on April 1.

Host Communications is looking for four additional marketers to join the NCAA's corporate partner program, now in its 10th year. Deals in the computer/software and credit card categories are in the offing.

Events & Promotion Marketing News, coordinated by Kate Fitzgerald, runs the first Monday of the month. Reach us by fax at (312) 649-5331 or e-mail address [email protected]

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