The NCAA’s decision to limit attendance at March Madness games to 25% of arena capacity has made it challenging for brands that have invested in college basketball this season. While they are doing their best to bring “the IP and [in-stadium] experience into a virtual setting,” Octagon executive vice president Derek Aframe said the inability “to activate on site is something that really impairs the short-term.” That is why instead of brands going all-in on the Big Dance as they normally would, “Pretty consistently, across the board, [companies] are keeping the powder dry [this March and] waiting until they can do things in a more robust way—when there is more momentum and more infrastructure to take advantage of sports,” Aframe explained. However, as evidenced by the first weekend’s attention-grabbing events, that doesn’t mean NCAA corporate partners are taking a pass on the 2021 Tournament altogether. They are just “doing things in a more resourceful, targeted fashion and shifting their focus more towards other forms of activation, outside of their typical on-site programming,” Aframe added.
Our Take: The inability to activate on site is not the only reason NCAA sponsors have dialed it back this year. With all of the games being played within the state of Indiana, the tournament lost the “organic national footprint [typically associated with March Madness]. That’s a huge shift. So much of what [brands are looking for] is the fans’ passion, and the engine that drives that passion is the buzz in the communities hosting these events,” Aframe explained. Fewer host cities means there are fewer fans engaged in the tournament.
While the ratings will “ultimately bear this out,” Aframe noted the commonly held belief going into the 2021 Tournament was that television viewership would also be down. “Unfortunately, so much of [tournament viewership] is about building momentum across the regular season,” and regular season viewership was down across the board. The limited fan attendance was expected to have a negative effect on the number of people watching at home, too. It’s simply an inferior viewing experience without the live crowd cheering in the background.
With so many headwinds, it is fair to wonder why brands chose to pivot as opposed to just pack it in and prepare for next season. Said Aframe: “Part of this is looking at other options. On the margin, it may still be more compelling [for a brand] to run an opportunistic [NCAA Tournament] program right now than to run traditional media on some other platform or not do anything at all.”
For Invesco, for instance, activating solely in a virtual environment actually felt “very in line with [the company’s] focus” and in “some ways [makes the campaign] even more powerful,” said Emily Pachuta (chief marketing and analytics officer for the Americas). The investment management company, which is seeking to build brand awareness of its Invesco QQQ product (an ETF of innovative companies in the NASDAQ 100), “leaned into the idea of innovation” this March, rolling out a series of virtual pep rallies and chalk talks, as well as an A/R based video game. It does need to be noted that the company, a first-time NCAA Tournament sponsor, also does not “know any different,” Pachuta said.
Still, Invesco is committed to its partnership with the NCAA as an opportunity to “add value to our communities.” One of the ways it intends to do that this year is by working with the college sports’ governing body to “build an exclusive financial literacy program for their [more than] 500,000 student athletes,” Pachuta said.
Invesco isn’t the only tournament sponsor using the platform to “do good.” Degree deodorant is planning to refurbish a basketball court at a Boys & Girls Club in Indiana, while Centerplate has committed to donating excess food at the conclusion of the tournament to local charities. Aframe said there has been a rise in “cause-based” marketing campaigns as brands look for resourceful, relevant ways to participate in March Madness while remaining respectful of public safety.
Another trend to have emerged this March was the use of brand ambassadors in campaigns. For example, Invesco is leaning on partnerships with former Duke great Grant Hill and sportscaster Greg Gumbel. “The level of intimacy and access ambassadors have provided, [necessary in an exclusively digital world], is going to have a lasting impact,” Aframe said.
Assuming the 2022 Final Four resembles something closer to the 2019 edition, brands will be back to activating on site. But that does not mean the digital experiences constructed this year are going to be cast aside. “We’re going to learn a lot about how effective our different virtual experiences [are], and that will in-and-of-itself cause us to make changes, enhance things [and] optimize executions [next year],” Pachuta said. Invesco won’t be alone. Regardless of how digital campaigns are received this year, Aframe says activating in a virtual world is here to stay, as brands can simply reach so many more fans than they can in person.