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March Madness Standouts

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March Madness Standouts

[Header image credit: Canva]

For many sports fans, March is the single greatest month of the year.  Between Conference Tournaments, NCAA March Madness, MLB Spring Training and Opening Day, the NBA Playoffs push, and PGA TOUR tournaments leading up to The Masters…March is stacked every single weekend.

For fans, it’s just an awesome month to sit back and enjoy. For brands looking to align with the passion of those sports fans, it’s as busy (and crowded) as any time of year. And for TMA, we’re dialed in not only as fans, but also from a marketing and sponsorship perspective. Below are some thoughts on the anchor of our month, the NCAA Tournament…


Coach K’s “Letter To His Younger Self” ran for around 10 minutes during the pre-game. Twitter haters were on fire with “How can CBS run an infomercial for Duke?” and “They’d never do this for any other school!” It goes without saying that Coach K is an all-timer, but why would CBS dedicate that time to one program?

Well…according to TMA’s Celebrity DBI, people like him, trust him, and want to be like him. Of those surveyed that know Coach K, 87% find him Appealing, 90% see him Aspirational, and he ranks 68th out of the 4,464 celebrities in the database in Trust. So, there’s obviously some method to CBS’ move, as well as the myriad brands that have aligned with Coach K over the years. Simply put, America at large really likes Coach K.  And for Coach K, that means more PR and recruiting gold.


Even with one big insurance brand quietly exiting their long-time NCAA partnership this week, the NCAA Corporate Partners program has never been bigger. In the last 3-4 months, the NCAA has added Indeed in the job search category and Google Cloud in the cloud and web services space. The partnerships are packaged and sold through Turner and CBS, and are roughly 75%-85% media buys. The other 15%-20% usually goes towards ownership and usage of IP rights – the blue disk, and the right to market your brand as the “Official Hamburger Of The NCAA,” “Official Pizza Of March Madness,” or “Official Car Rental Of College Sports Fans.”

Those rights can be powerful differentiators as brands look to stand out and make a statement in a very crowded marketplace. For brands looking to align with a large audience (ratings up 8% this year), with disposable income (College grads average $65k+ income), that like fast food, beer, and chocolate (76% of sponsorships are tied to non-health food, College Sports fans index through the roof vs non-fans), it’s an easy call, albeit an expensive one. And, with insurance being the most active category in College Sports sponsorship, Turner and CBS will no doubt find a replacement sooner rather than later.


I’m a bit numb to all the noise and non-relevant spots out there, so when something strikes me, it’s probably a solid tie back to the sport or event they’re sponsoring. Through their brand new sponsorship with the NCAA, Google Cloud tied their data crunching capabilities to College Basketball and NCAA Tournament stats, connecting their sponsor presence back to the sport, and attempting to bring soul to a previously soul-less category.  Google Cloud is a B2B sell, but felt like B2C with the spots, providing a human touch as they tried to connect with CIOs and tech leads around the country.

I also liked how Buffalo Wild Wings is the sponsor of all Overtimes in the Tournament. As the “Official Hangout Of March Madness,” and a great place to have one more before calling a ride share, it makes for an easy brand/position connection.  And for their TV spot below…in order to use Kentucky and Wisconsin gear and logos, Buffalo Wild Wings needed to sign deals with those individual schools for mark usage within the TV spot. The NCAA partnership doesn’t allow use of individual school marks, but rather the rights to the NCAA blue disk, and terms like “March Madness” or “NCAA Tournament.”

Both brands tied their sponsor connection back to the sport, surfacing relevant, contextual spots.  While there is no silver bullet to standing, being relevant to the sport/event is a good start.


Finally, we all know the darling of the Tournament is Sister Jean and Loyola-Chicago. What a fun story, and to borrow a line from my Grandma LaVonne, what a kick that ‘ol gal is. The social stats speak for themselves, Sister Jean is a star.  She was mentioned in more social posts than any and all players and coaches participating in the entire tournament, and over the past 2 weeks, she’s outranked social media superstar Cardi B.  Yes, with all of the billions spent in and round this Tournament, the star is actually a 98-year old nun.

Moving forward, Loyola-Chicago will be selling licensed merch with her name and likeness (something others are already doing). So, keep your eyes open for officially licensed Sister Jean shirts, hats, and even garden gnomes. No matter how this Final Four weekend plays out, we won’t forget about Sister Jean for a long time – and Loyola-Chicago will take that social heat to the bank.