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NCAAs feature 100% sponsor activation at men’s, women’s Final Four for first time

By Michael Smith

With the eyes of college basketball fixed squarely on equitable treatment of both the men’s and women’s Final Four, the NCAA says 100% of its corporate partners and champions activated their sponsorships at the women’s championship in Minneapolis and the men’s event in New Orleans for the first time.

 

The champions and partner program includes 17 companies — AT&T, Capital One and Coca Cola at the highest level and 14 others at the partner level.

“We’re thrilled that we had 17 out of 17 at both locations,” said Ellen Lucey, the NCAA’s director of championships and alliances, corporate relations, marketing and branding. “We had a couple of partners come on late with their plans, but it worked out. It felt like a celebration, for sure, at both sites.”

The NCAA outsources sales and management of the partner program to CBS Sports and Turner Sports, which jointly own the media and marketing rights. Lucey, a former marketing executive at Coca-Cola, oversees the program for the NCAA.

The partners have TV advertising and digital media baked into their deals with CBS and Turner. Many of them also advertise with Disney Ad Sales on ESPN’s coverage of the women’s championship.

But Lucey said all of the partners and champions were on the ground with marketing activation that extended beyond their media buys.

That could come in the form of product sampling, which Coca-Cola did with its zero sugar soft drinks, or it could be pop-up Buffalo Wild Wings sites that served the fans.

Lucey further clarified that each of the 17 partners support all 90 NCAA championships. But it’s in the incremental dollars where activation decisions are made, and those decisions often come down to the business climate at the time.

Partners also increased their incremental spending at the women’s soccer and women’s volleyball championships last season as well, Lucey said, making the point that incremental spending on on-site activation is up beyond basketball. 

“The whole world has been in such a tentative place, but it seemed like everybody woke up around January and decided, ‘I think we’re going to do this,’” Lucey said. “Then it became a mad sprint to get everything ready to execute. It was just wonderful to be back on the ground and to see the partners embracing both the men’s and women’s Final Fours with that level of activation.”

Some of the activation opportunities are built in. The men’s Final Four in New Orleans featured three straight nights of concerts, each night sponsored by one of the three NCAA champions. In Minneapolis, the women’s Final Four had a Saturday concert.

With those events come the opportunity for heavy hospitality and event entertainment. Both sites also created their own fan fests in New Orleans and Minneapolis, which was another opportunity for sponsors to engage with fans. The fan fest’s opening day on that Friday, April 1, set a record for attendance at a women’s Final Four, Lucey said, without citing specific numbers.

Three of the 17 partners were still on travel restriction, so that cut down slightly on the number of executives.

“We’ve always had a pretty healthy number of partners at the women’s Final Four,” Lucey said. “But I will say that they really stepped it up even more this year. Every activation strategy is different. AT&T’s space in the fan fest was all about technology, while Coke’s was about sampling. Then you had Buick featuring Sue Bird out front at their event. That provided the fans with a lot of great experiences.”

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