Starting in last year’s tournament, the NCAA made a small change that put their 80 years of branding and success on display. For all of the host sites of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, there was a prominent “March Madness” logo at center court. What started as a mere nickname for the annual basketball tournament has become an accurate representation of not only the basketball, but the marketing and advertising associated with the tournament.
The tournament and the bracket challenges draw interest from more than 70 million people, from all walks of life, sports fans or not. Not to mention, the timing of the NCAA Tournament comes during a lull in the professional sports world, with the NFL between seasons, MLB season right around the corner, and the NHL and NBA months away from playoff competition, sports fans are eager for excitement. For perspective, in just a three-week span the TV advertising revenues grew to a record $1.24 billion in 2016 outpacing the 2 month NBA playoffs.
March Madness is a crucial period for brands and advertisers each year, even more so with the role and impact of social media. During last year’s tournament, social media engagement reached over 63 million impressions from fans. The use of individually branded subgroups like the Sweet Sixteen or the Final Four allow for more focused and creative marketing and social media efforts. This year, one social media account in particular went viral, and for a new and unexpected reason.
In the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, there had never been a No. 1 seed upset by a No. 16 seed. Until 2018. In the second round of the tournament, the overall No. 1 seeded Virginia Cavaliers came crashing down in a stunning rout by the No. 16 seeded U.M.B.C. Retrievers. Many were calling it over before it ever started, and the man behind the U.M.B.C. Athletics twitter account did not approve. Just before tip-off, Zach Seidel, the director of multimedia communications in athletics and man behind the account, responded to a tweet from Seth Davis of The Fieldhouse, that read “Virginia, Sharpie.” He then used the account to poke fun at Davis for taking the Retrievers too lightly. After few more humorous jabs and a decisive performance, the tweet and the account had exploded. Seidel said that by the end of the day, the twitter account had grown from around 5,500 followers to over 42,000 before reaching 97,000 by their next game two days later.
In the end, the exponential growth in popularity of the accounts generated interest and awareness for the school, and they had to apply for a number of trademarks they didn’t already have including “Retriever’s”, “Retriever Nation” and “16 over 1.” With all of the attention, they felt it needed to be done while they could. Back on campus, the bookstore was buzzing as they sold more gear over the weekend than they have in the last year. The sudden national exposure in television, print and internet impressions is estimated to result in an advertising value in the realm of $33 million if not more. In addition, it could have positive impacts on annual donations, enrollment, and general revenues from merchandise and even ticket sales.
The NCAA tournament truly is March Madness for many reasons, besides the big upsets and buzzer beaters. In terms of marketing and advertising, it provides a window of opportunity to increase brand awareness and exposure to a target audience that is essentially everyone with access. As an athletics department and school like UMBC, it provides an opportunity to showcase your brand and generate a following that you couldn’t get without the madness of college basketball.