Social Media: Putting the ‘Mad’ in March Madness

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 didn58f79431-4e0f-49c2-a8bb-1a7fee2d1810’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. 


  1. I was literally glued to my phone, constantly checking the TC app, until Kansas lost (I was only a little angry…) Every year I am shocked how much crazier this month gets. Social media is used in such an integrated way that we are really always thinking about march madness. Whether it’s through twitter, live stream, checking brackets, or seeing ads surrounding MM, it truly becomes part of people’s lives. This is a huge accomplishment.

    What I wonder is how the NCAA can use this hype and translate it to other parts of the basketball season to get people just as excited? Is this excitement focused around march madness only because it’s once a year, there is typically money or bragging rights involved, and because it is so accessible now?

    Great post!

    1. I think a lot of the excitement does have to do with the nature of the tournament and the bracket phenomenon, but you do definitely see a spike in ticket sales/viewership for teams that make it to the Final Four in the following season, so I think that the NCAA could be more aggressive about promoting those teams that make it further in the tournament.

  2. diiorion · ·

    A tournament like March Madness is very well-suited for the rise of social media and online streaming capabilities due to so many games going on at one time. Other sporting events like the Super Bowl or the World Series are great but while the numbers might not back it up, I think March Madness is the best time for digital advertising (at least for the first couple days of the tournament). For many people who cannot spend their entire Thursday and Friday sitting at home or streaming the games at work, they heavily rely on social media to keep updated on the games and scores. This opens the door for advertisers to really put on unique, creative advertising campaigns online. I agree with you that this trend will only increase.

    I was really surprised to find out that all of the social media for the NCAA is being run by the 30 students at Ball State. I can’t imagine how tired they must be at the end the first weekend of the tournament!

  3. This was a very informative post! I really enjoyed reading about how vital Ball State University is, and I’m so glad you brought that to our attentions. The digital engagement with consumers is exactly how I became engaged with March Madness a few years ago, and I agree with your prediction that there will be even greater focus on digital advertising in the years to come.

  4. alexisteixeiraa · ·

    This was a super well-written and well-researched post that provided a lot of information and thoughts on a number of aspects of this tournament. For mer personally I have been mostly following and developing my bracket through online websites and social media resources versus watching hours of television. I find the digital content to be a more efficient way to get the information I wanted. Especially in the early rounds it was impossible to watch all of the games when there were several games playing at the same time and the only way to keep up was through twitter and Facebook. I also think that brand involvement in these and other tournaments has really increased, becoming a lot more personalized and driven towards connecting with the players and leveraging their connections to the game. Really enjoyed this timely post, thank you!

    1. Thanks! And in terms of bracket development, you’re definitely making the right move. As part of researching for this post, I found out that there’s a company that bases its March Madness bracket on twitter sentiment surrounding each particular team/matchup, and has beat out 95% of all brackets submitted to ESPN over the past few years.

  5. What a fabulous post! I love these examples in areas that I might not be aware of. I’m sure the whole thing is very self-serving on behalf of the networks, but it is a great opportunity for students to get good experience.

  6. mikeward7 · ·

    Awesome post! Twitter seems like it has become the perfect match for March Madness, especially during the first couple rounds that take place during the day when so many people have work and school and are unable to watch many of the games. It allows them to furiously reload their feed to see whats going on in a close game or potential upset. I’ve definitely been guilty of doing this over the past several years!

%d bloggers like this: