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Advertisers Gamble on March Madness, Too

The West Virginia Mountaineers play the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the second round of the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

Photograph by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The West Virginia Mountaineers play the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the second round of the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

Watching March Madness is getting no less maddening. Not only is there a visual assault of logos, streaming scores, and garish graphics, but also the court—for years a brown rectangle—has become something of a surreal art installation. (The University of Oregon’s hardwood resembles an enormous Bob Ross painting.) Organizations at the collegiate level seem to have studied the marketing playbook of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, pioneers in the development of three-dimensional optical illusions on their baselines.

Of course, much of the sensory overload is driven by corporate sponsorships, which for last year’s tournament brought in more than $1 billion in advertising revenue for CBS (CBS) and Turner networks, which include TBS and TNT. But even so, March Madness advertising is still a gamble—because who knows which games will be storybook upsets and manage to draw more eyeballs than anticipated?

Some advertisers have managed to squeeze greater value from their TV spots than others. According to a March 18 report by IEG, a Chicago sponsorship consulting firm, and Kantar Media’s Image Track, AT&T (T) was the sponsor from the 2012 Men’s Basketball Tournament that came away with the “most value from its exposure” during the games, said to be worth $11.6 million.

An AT&T spokesman declined to say how much the Dallas-based company paid for its array of spots. The first runner-up was Coca-Cola (KO), with an exposure value of $3.1 million. Next was Buick (GM), with $2.5 million. (According to Ad Week, 30-second spots during last year’s tournament started at $100,000 in the opening rounds, rising to $700,000 for the Final Four and $1.45 million for the championship game.)

The figures were determined after Image Track analyzed every game from the 2012 tournament with a technology called Sports Eye. “It’s software that literally scans the broadcasts looking for corporate logos, from a sign to a goal post,” says Jim Andrews, IEG’s senior vice president of content strategy. “It records it all to deliver a total amount of exposure.” IEG then broke down the findings using what Andrews calls a “proprietary formula.” “We apply that to the number—say, if the logo was visible for 18 minutes and 27 seconds—and take into account whether it’s verbal mentions or signage or the title of the halftime report, to see what it’s worth.”

We were curious to know what inside information IEG may have for aspiring sponsors. Is there a TV ad space that proves to be particularly high-value for marketers? For getting as much bang for your advertising buck as possible?

“A lot of the value came in what they call ‘squeeze backs,’ which are basically when they have the running tote board at the top of the screen, and there’s a small logo that rotates up,” he says. “I was a little surprised by how much value came from that. It’s the constancy of that logo being there throughout the broadcast—the duration makes it a pretty significant value.”

Of course, the value of the squeeze backs—or any ad space, for that matter—relies heavily on the performances on the court. “That’s the thing with exposure,” says Andrews. “It’s a bit of a crapshoot. You’re lucky to have your logo come up at an exciting time during an exciting game. But you just don’t know which games are going to be the ones people tune into.”

Mayo is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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