Advertisers Go Mad For March Madness

Advertisers and their buying agencies have come to see the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament as a viable alternative and better value than the Super Bowl, getting multiple spots for the same major payout. Agency executives are already planning negotiations for next year’s tournament at the spring upfronts.

Who needs the Super Bowl when you can advertise in March Madness?

That’s the question a growing number of advertisers and their media agencies are quietly pondering as the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament telecasts open this week on CBS and Turner Sports networks.

Many advertisers and their buying agencies see it as a viable and less costly major alternative event to reach a large number of viewers. Yet most don’t want to talk about it for attribution since they have to negotiate their ad buys with various networks.

Super Bowl Shortfall

The Super Bowl draws an audience north of 100 million, but viewers see an advertiser’s $7 million spot for just 30 seconds. Spending that same amount across the three-week March Madness tournament can get an advertiser multiple units during weekday, weekend and primetime games.

“An advertiser gets one 30-second Super Bowl spot for $7 million, but the NCAA tournament offers lots of frequency and exposure to different audiences over a three-week period,” says one media agency executive. “Your ad gets repetition throughout.”


Naysayers will point to the 2021 championship game on CBS that drew 16.9 million, three million less than the 2019 viewership. And the last time the championship was televised on Turner, it averaged 16.5 million.

But advertisers, who are the ones actually trying to sell their products to the viewers watching the 67 games, are less concerned with the big championship game number as they are with reaching consumers consistently during each game with their messages.

“By championship weekend, most advertisers have already established themselves and their products in the eyes of the viewers,” says a media buyer.

Says another agency exec bluntly: “Any advertisers in very competitive categories — and there are a bunch of them — are in trouble if their competitors are advertising throughout the tournament and they aren’t.”

The NFL championship game draws a big audience and Thanksgiving night NFL is important for retailers on Black Friday. But again, those are just one-time events, not a three week-long cornucopia of games on assorted nights of the week.

Two New Ratings Benefits

For those concerned about past ratings shortfalls in the tournament, there are two potential added benefits for those advertisers who bought in this year that could boost viewership even more throughout, including in the finals.

For the first time, Nielsen will be including out-of-home viewership in its ratings numbers, and clearly, there is a very large audience that watches the tournament games in bars, restaurants, airports and other out-of-home settings.

And one agency exec points to the continued growth of legalized gambling as a motivation for more viewers to watch the telecasts.

“March Madness used to be the biggest couple of weeks for illegally placed gambling,” he says. “Now it’s even bigger with more people involved in legalized betting.”

Ironically, while gambling may draw more viewers, CBS and Turner are not allowed to sell ads to the legalized gambling sites — something that the NCAA as of now prohibits.

Renewed Interest

In public conferences last week, CBS and Turner announced that this year’s tournament’s ad units were sold out at almost double-digit price increases compared to last year, and that the total amount of advertising sold was a record.

What’s interesting is that not only was virtually all of the inventory sold before Christmas, but buyers say a large amount of the ads were sold during last summer’s broadcast upfront.

“Everyone knew that the tournament would be back in 2022 with its original format for the first time since 2019, so advertisers were trying to buy in as early as possible,” one agency exec says. “The corporate sponsors have multi-year deals, so that reduces available inventory, so anyone who wanted to be in needed to get in early. Especially if you wanted to be in Final Four weekend.”

Demand always raises pricing also, thus, record rates paid for this year’s ad inventory.

Ready For Next Year

Meanwhile, agency execs are already planning to start negotiating for March Madness 2023 ad inventory when the broadcast upfront kicks off beginning in late May and early June, just months from now.

CBS and Turner lost close to $1 billion March Madness ad dollars in 2020 when the tournament was canceled. That was bad for the networks, but there was some long-term good in that advertisers realized how important the tournament was to their marketing goals.

Other factors that have more advertisers eager to get in is that the tournament is held at a time of year when many advertisers are starting branding campaigns on different seasonal items, and that the audience, while broad in age, includes a much larger number of younger viewers, harder to reach than most everywhere else in television.

Viewers have also been leaving broadcast and cable primetime television in droves and advertisers are looking for places to move some of their dollars. Live sports is the continued growing choice, particularly a three-week tournament.

Big Ad Spenders

While the networks don’t name specific advertisers earmarked for this year’s tournament, measures the advertising each year. And most of the big spenders on the list are corporate sponsors who return from year to year.

Last year’s top March Madness spenders included: AT&T Wireless ($74.7 million); Capital One Credit Card ($48.7 million); GEICO ($46.7 million); Buick ($39.5 million); Progressive ($37.7 million); GMC ($35.6 million); Nissan ($30 million); Allstate ($29.6 million); Samsung Mobile ($28.7 million); and State Farm ($25.7 million).

Other big ad spenders in the tournament included: Apple iPhone ($23.4 million); Lowe’s ($20.7 million); Powerade ($19.2 million); Invesco ($18.6 million); Wendy’s ($18 million); Coca-Cola ($17.7 million); Subway ($17.5 million); Rocket Mortgage ($17.2 million); Ford ($15.3 million); and Coke Zero Sugar ($14.5 million).

Network by network, estimated national ad revenue taken in by the networks in last year’s tournament according to were CBS at $640 million and the three Turner networks $406 million with TBS taking in $250 million, TNT at $106 million and truTV at $50 million.

AT&T is again the sponsor of the halftime shows of all the games, while Capital One returns as sponsor of Tournament Central, the studio show between games.

Final Impression

One final impressive stat for the tournament and the sales teams at CBS and Turner Sports comes from John Bogusz, EVP, sports sales and marketing, at CBS Network sales, who said virtually all of the March Madness ad sales were completed before there were any issues with the Major League Baseball lockout.

None of the March Madness ad dollars, he says, came from advertisers moving dollars out of baseball (although the lockout ended) and into the tournament. Clearly, there wouldn’t have been room for them anyway.

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