Unless you’ve been living under a rock or taking a social media hiatus, you’re sure to have noticed that the annual collegiate Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament–March Madness–has been dominating the nation’s captivation over the past week and a half. Begun in 1939, March Madness has been near the center of America’s sports culture for decades, and its popularity has only increased.
So How Mad Are We Talking?
So far, this year’s March Madness tournament has generated 69.1 million lives streams through the first Sunday of the tournament, an incredible 14% higher than the total streams garnered during the entirety of the 2015 tournament. Though we don’t yet have full data on this year’s social media chatter, as the tournament is still ongoing, the 2015 tournament had generated over 350 million total social impressions on Facebook and Twitter alone, a sum that will undoubtedly be masked by this year’s totals given the growth the 2017 tournament has already seen in advertising, viewership & round by round social media engagements. For example, by the second round of this year (which ended March 19th), official March Madness handles had already racked up 26 million engagements across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, a 24% increase for the same period of last year’s tournament.
The Final Four of March Madness Media Control
The NCAA is a non-profit regulatory association for collegiate sports across the country, meaning that though they technically run the March Madness tournament, digital content and most business rights remain under the control of Turner Sports and CBS Sports. The two companies collaborate to manage the NCAA’s corporate marketing portfolio, and both have unlimited digital rights to any March Madness content and have the right to live broadcast content through any of their respective platforms. Currently, television broadcasting of the games is limited to four networks: CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV (the latter three are under the parent company Turner). Turner sports also currently runs the NCAA website as well as the March Madness Live website extension and app.
ESPN (a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Corporation), however, retains exclusive rights to all March-Madness related broadcasting and multimedia content outside of the United States as well as live studio coverage at the Final Four.
Because Turner and CBS technically own the digital and multimedia rights to NCAA content and marks, the various social media accounts associated with the NCAA, collegiate basketball and the March Madness Tournament can be run by any of the three organizations, generally working in collaboration with one another. Which organization actually staffs each individual handle, however, proves difficult to pin down. Though they definitely do some outsourcing…
The Students Behind the Curtain
So, you may have noticed that my Final Four bracket is missing a player (if you did: good work, you’re paying attention). But that’s because I always like to leave room for the underdog. And this year, that’s Ball State University.
For those of you not following March Madness: No, the Ball State basketball team is not leading the twitterverse in tournament gifs or memes; they don’t have an incredibly talented NBA prospect whose father claims he’s better than Steph Curry, and they’re definitely not busting anyone’s brackets. In fact, Ball State basketball didn’t even make the tournament.
The Ball State in my bracket, however, does not consist of basketball players: I’d have to imagine that the team I’m rooting for on this one is actually a bit nerdier and definitely has a shorter average height than their athletic counterparts. Though this year’s championship game will be played in Phoenix, Arizona, the true epicenter of March Madness resides within a 1,500 square foot hub in Muncie, Indiana. There, thirty students and a faculty adviser for the Ball State University digital sports production program are furiously working behind the scenes of the Official NCAA social media accounts to monitor engagement and pump out content.
If you’re anything like me and don’t have time to follow the tournament live, you’ve probably got those students to thank for keeping you updated on the can’t-miss moments of the basketball frenzy. Not only is the Ball State program responsible for monitoring all of the tournament-related hashtags for the NCAA, but they’re creating the highlight clips you see floating around your network within 60 seconds of the live event, boosting posts, promoting new trending hashtags, and sharing the best tournament content. They’re even responsible for collecting and editing fan and sponsor posts to send to the arenas’ jumbotrons.
How Brands Have Become the Tournament’s Biggest Cheerleaders:
Like many similar events, the popularity and requisite fan engagement surrounding March Madness has increased largely due to the ubiquity of social media. Not only are fans interacting with one another by posting their brackets online, live posting during games and sharing their opinions (and often playful insults) online, but companies are promoting the tournament as well by getting their brands involved via social media. Though March Madness ad revenue is still dominated by TV-ads, the rate at which digital ad generated revenue has been growing on an average of 20% per year, whereas ad revenue from TV-ads has only been growing at about 4-5% per year.
Hundreds of companies ranging from KFC and Wendy’s to Allstate and Degree are leveraging digital outlets to capitalize on the tournament’s popularity, a tactic that has both promotes their company and further promotes the tournament itself. And they’re getting their audiences involved in fun and interesting ways, by creating their own bracket tournaments, hosting sweepstakes, pitting celebrity endorsers against one another in their own final four, launching apps, and, of course, using a lot of puns. Wendy’s even has a twitter functionality that allows fans to DM their twitter account to create a bracket and be entered into their bracket tournament.
Interestingly, a majority of the most prevalent and successful brands (by measures of ad revenue & social media engagement) are in the fast-moving consumer goods industry (think: Oreo, Coca Cola, Degree Men) or the fast food industry (KFC, Wendy’s), which coincides with the cultural relationship between spectatorship and fast-food/drinks.
By engaging with consumers via social media and apps, rather than just through television ads, companies are creating conversation amongst fans and engaging those who may not have otherwise been interested in the tournament, feeding into the tournament’s growing popularity.
Over the next decade, I predict that digital advertisements will become even more important than it already is, especially as more viewership moves from TV to online streaming. The continued cultivation of the tournament as a pseudo-online community will also likely aid in the digitally-focused nature of advertisements and tournament information as people become more and more reliant on both brands and their peers for updates and entertainment.