Bracket Stimulus: March Madness and NCAA Basketball Are Recession-Proof

Forget the doom and gloom. Ad makers know a good thing when they see it.

A detail shot of a basketball during the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship Semifinals at the Ford Center March 13, 2009 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
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March Madness is a running, bouncing, dunking, cheerworthy stimulus plan in short pants and a brightly colored jersey. And, boy, is it ever coming at the right time.

Now that Feverish February has vanished into the gloom and we're getting ready for the big tip-off, it's natural to worry whether March Madness is going to change this year due to the recession. Well, take it from an ad guy: March Madness is recession-proof. CBSSports.com has already reported that advertising on its live streaming service (March Madness on Demand) is expected to hit record levels of clicks and sales. It is gleefully looking at some $30 million in sales from its digital online offerings, up from $23 million last year. Clicks are expected to exceed last year's record of 2.5 million-plus. Even the "Boss Button" an office worker can click to put a fake spreadsheet over the ballgame on a computer screen (should a supervisor appear) has an official sponsor! I do, however, predict that a lot of workers who have watched the games during work hours will be a bit more hesitant to do so than in the past as a result of the need to remain employed. But, one thing is definite: No advertising agency offices will come to a total standstill during March Madness.

The advertising community benefits greatly from these nearly three weeks of madness the NCAA offers us annually. In my business, advertising sales are measured on a cost-per-thousand (CPM) basis, and the projections are that the numbers will be good. So good, in fact, that last year's television ad revenues of more than $580 million will surely be surpassed. You can expect to see some of the fast-food folks, cellphone and foreign car companies, and male-oriented products at the forefront of the expected spending on this year's "Big Dance." Of course, you won't see too many U.S. automakers' ads this year, for obvious reasons. It's somewhat ironic given that the Final Four will be in Detroit.

Why will the event be more popular than ever and why will advertisers spend more this year? March Madness has become part of the American fabric. Like the Super Bowl (which achieved higher-than-expected ratings and record ad revenues), it is an excuse to celebrate. It brings folks together. This is partly due to the wager factor. People who normally don't follow college basketball become bracket filler-outers and get involved in the wagering with the "experts." Usually, the winners in our office pool have no knowledge of the sport at all! These are the same people who buy lottery tickets when the payouts soar.

This year, especially, any event that can take our minds off the excessive daily grind of moribund news about the economy is a welcome thing. Further, March Madness is not just a series of college basketball playoffs. The term is being used in more ways that can be counted ... and many of them are extremely positive. For example, there are March Madness fundraisers for everything from AIDS prevention to rescuing dogs. There are March Madness promotions and contests with prizes running the gamut from free cosmetic products for women to green iPods. There's even a blog where you can win mini TIE fighters for Star Wars followers. It's called "March Mini Madness." Restaurants all over the country will be bringing in those 52-inch televisions and setting them up in private rooms for "block parties," and so on. All of this will be done in the name of good fun, great gatherings, and good business.

March Madness can also be a platform for career opportunities as well! Coaches looking for better opportunities that might be available at other schools are usually quite visible at big parties thrown during the Final Four by companies like Nike and Adidas. At a much lower level, one blogger will be interviewing attendees for college internships. Where else can you find a pool of students who will have the extra time to learn about such a position? In addition, there will be a multitude of March Madness social outings, such as a golf tournament for students of local colleges to do "networking" at a course that is normally unaffordable. In one instance, the entrance fee of $15 includes all golf costs and an "after party" with plenty of food and drinks.



Walter F. Guarino is an advertising professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He is also president and managing partner of Insight/SGW, a brand positioning and research company.