Does March Madness Still Dominate in a Changing TV Landscape?

There aren’t that many mega media events on the calendar and these days most of them are sports related. The Super Bowl, with its 100 million plus domestic audience, is obviously the perennial king, but NFL playoff games are no slouches themselves, routinely breaking 30 and 40 million view counts in 2017.

The Academy Awards and major political events, like Presidential addresses, were the only non-sports TV broadcasts of 2017 to crack the top ten most watched programming. Anything that isn’t aired live risks being relegated to DVR hard drives and doesn’t stand a chance to rack up big ratings.

March is still a great month for television advertising, even though the NFL is off the air, opening day for baseball is weeks away, and the postseasons for the NHL and NBA are still far off. Why? The NCAA tournament presents three solid weeks of must watch, unskippable, don’t bother setting the DVR, basketball glory.

Still an Advertising Champion

Because there are so many games, the total view count for any one can’t match one-off media events, but, in terms of revenue, March Madness is a powerhouse. According to Kantar Media the ad spend for last year’s tournament was $1.29 billion, second only to the NFL postseason (including the Super Bowl).

Source: Nielsen via Statista

A range of brands are vying to associate themselves with the tournament and its attention-getting Cinderella stories and crushing upsets. General Motors made the biggest investment in the event in 2017, with $83 million in pre-game, in-game, and post-game advertising (from related programming). AT&T, Coca-Cola, Capital One Financial, and GEICO rounded out the top five biggest spenders, each devoting over $40 million.

Much like the teams on court, each brand goes into the tournament with high hopes and what they think will be a winning game plan. The question is, who is getting the biggest return on their marketing?

TV and Social Media Team Up

With the growing importance of social media, not only as a primary source for brand engagement, but also as a useful indicator of the effectiveness and reach of traditional advertising (owing to the fact that when a TV ad resonates, it gets shared and talked about online), TV-social lift is a key performance indicator.

Researchers at 4C Insights examined the top 20 brands that aired at least 10 commercials during last year’s tournament to determine the “likelihood a consumer is to engage with a brand on social media within two minutes after their March Madness ad aired.” Their study found that despite big expenditures by Capital One and GEICO, they failed to muster the engagement levels of brands that ran fewer, but more carefully selected spots. Acura, for example, ran only 37 spots (compared to 160 by GEICO), but saw a 1,491% increase in social media engagement, proving that quality sometimes nets a better return than quantity.

Pizza Hut has long understood the effectiveness of building social engagement into their TV spots. They had a minor viral sensation on their hands last year with a pair of customized sneakers called Pie Tops that had a button built right into the shoes that can order a pizza. They are bringing the idea back with Pie Tops II, which now also have a button for pausing live TV so you can collect your pizza from the delivery guy without missing a moment of your favorite team. In addition to selling 50 pairs of the sneakers, they commissioned 30 and 15-second TV spots to promote them.

The Takeaway

The media environment may be in flux, but live events are still drawing millions of eyeballs and a commensurate number of ad dollars. In the relatively quiet month of March, the NCAA tournament is still the biggest game in town.

Bracketology will continue unabated, office productivity will plummet, and smart brands will continue to experiment with omnichannel strategies designed to reach audiences on whichever device they use to interact with the tournament.

If you want to see a great example of mixing interactive social fun with the tournament, check out the The Road to Final Flavor. This was a great concept we created for Herr’s Snack Foods to showcase their wide variety of flavors by bracketing the snacks by flavor categories and pitting them against each other in head to head competition.

In addition to the weekly snack face offs, we also created follow up news conferences for the winning flavors:


On with the madness!