It's Not Just Fans On The Edge Of Their Seats

March Madness never seemed quite so delirious as in the final overtime moments of the NCAA regional final between Duke and Kentucky. Trailing by one point with 2.1 seconds on the clock, Christian Laettner of Duke caught a 78-foot inbounds pass, faked right, turned left, and lofted a shot at the buzzer. Final score: Duke 104, Kentucky 103. "It's almost as if the writer for The Young and the Restless wrote the script for the game," says Paul Schulman, a prominent media buyer and confirmed March Madman.

Schulman should thank Laettner for the happy ending: He and other media experts say Duke's thrilling victory on Mar. 28 could boost TV viewership of the final three games of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament by more than 920,000 households. That's good news for Schulman's clients, Eveready Battery Co. and ITT Corp., which have bought commercial time during the semifinal games. CBS is set to air the semifinals on Apr. 4 and the NCAA Championship game on Monday, Apr. 6.

Advertisers aren't the only folks cheering on the Blue Devils. CBS Inc. won an 11.9 Nielsen rating for the game, or 10.9 million TV households. That's a 27% jump over the equivalent game last year. Overall, the network's NCAA ratings are up 5% over 1991. CBS predicts the championship will attract more than 19 million TV households. More important, CBS already has sold out commercial time in the Final Four games, even though it's asking for more than $450,000 per 30-second spot in the championship. "When you look at the strength of major sporting events, this comes between the Super Bowl and the baseball All-Star game," says Neil H. Pilson, president of CBS Sports.

JUGGERNAUT. College basketball has gathered steam since 1984, when the NCAA expanded the tournament field to 64 teams from all regions of the country. But it really became a juggernaut after a string of heart-stopping championships: Villanova's 1985 upset of Georgetown, Indiana's last-second victory over Syracuse in 1987, and Michigan's 1989 squeaker over Seton Hall. "We just kept having one great game after another through the 1980s," says Dave Gavitt, Boston Celtics chief executive officer and former chairman of the NCAA's tournament committee.

Marketers are willing to pay princely sums to be part of such excitement: Measured by its cost per thousand viewers, commercial time on the NCAA final is as expensive as on the Super Bowl telecast. Commercial time in the semifinal games goes for about $250,000 for 30 seconds, which is why CBS sold out those games well before the final. But all told, the network is turning a profit on college basketball, even after paying the NCAA $1 billion in 1990 for rights to telecast the men's tournament for seven years.

That's no small consolation for CBS, which lost $400 million in 1991, mostly because of the sky-high rights fees it paid for Major League Baseball and National Football League games. Even better, the NCAA success comes on the heels of better-than-expected results for the Olympic Winter Games. While it struggled to sell all its commercial time, CBS says it broke even.

Happily for CBS, advertisers have come to regard the NCAA tournament as a three-week marketing opportunity rivaled only by the Olympics. Pepsi-Cola Co., for example, is buying 15 commercials in the Final Four games. Andrew Giangola, a Pepsi spokesman, says the company is spending three times as much this year as it did in 1991. The money is going for a series of spots to reinvigorate the highly successful Diet Pepsi campaign that features Ray Charles singing "You've Got the Right One Baby, Uh-huh." Pepsi is also erecting a 16,000-square-foot tent outside the Minneapolis Metrodome, site of the Final Four, to promote Diet Pepsi.

Nike Inc. will air eight commercials during the Final Four to push a new corporate-image campaign using the song Instant Karma by John Lennon. "We think the tournament is as important as the World Series and NBA Championship, if not more," says Nike Divisional Ad Manager Rob De Florio. Nike's archrival, Reebok International, is spending $5 million to buy 10 spots in the Final Four--a 40% increase over last year. And the company will give away 14,000 free hats at Hoop City, a giant tent to be erected outside the Metrodome by Coca-Cola Co.

Reebok, Nike, and Pepsi all value the tournament for its upscale, mostly college-educated audience. It also falls at a propitious time on the marketing calendar--midway between the Super Bowl and the NBA Championship. Plus, advertisers like the quality and unpredictability of the tourney's matchups, which sets it apart from the blowout-prone Super Bowl. Pepsi put all of its Super Bowl spots this year in the first three commercial breaks because it feared a lopsided score would prompt viewers to tune out. "With the NCAA, we feel confident that fans are going to be glued to their seats until the final seconds," says Giangola.

This year should be no exception. The finals matchups are a dream: Polished Duke meets the theatrical Indiana under coach Bobby Knight, while the Cincinnati's upstart Bearcats take on Michigan's freshman Fab Five. No wonder March Madness has CBS and its sponsors howling at the moon.

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