4 Things the Final Four Can Teach Us About Marketing

2011 NCAA(Looking for “Is Google Rewarding People Who Buy Friends?” Click here.)

Every year, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament proves why it’s earned the nickname “March Madness” — because, literally, anything can happen. But for an event that markets itself as a showcase of unpredictability, this year’s tournament revealed just how poorly the sports industry is prepared to take advantage of those surprises when they actually do happen.

So let’s leave the post-game analysis to the basketball gurus and instead focus on the business side of the NCAA Tournament — and where it went right (and wrong) during this year’s Final Four.


1. Don’t Promise What You Can’t Deliver (or What You Secretly Don’t Want to Happen)

Yes, 60+ teams vie for the national championship every year.  But since 1964, only 21 teams have actually won it, and all of them (with the historic exception of UTEP in 1964) came from the traditional “power conferences,” i.e. the schools with the most money, best resources, top coaches and prime talent.

In other words, despite the promise of “March Madness,” college basketball fans can expect one of the large, well-known programs to win the championship each year.  All that “unpredictability” involving unknown teams trouncing would-be kings?  That tends to happen in the first two rounds.  By the time the tournament has been whittled down to 16 teams, it’s almost always business as usual.

And that must be a huge relief for the NCAA’s marketing agency, because they only have one playbook: “promote the well-known brands”.  Which, unfortunately (for them), isn’t what happened this year.

2. Your Customers Can Only Focus on One Thing at a Time

The odds are so highly stacked against a non-major team winning its way into the tournament’s Final Four that when Butler University did it last year, the only angles anyone could find to talk about were the obvious ones: David vs. Goliath and (especially because Butler is from Indiana) Hoosiers.  That was fine, because no one expected it to happen again anytime soon.

And then Butler went on another winning streak and made it to the championship game for the second time in a row.


To put that in perspective, since 1988, only 6 schools have played in back-to-back NCAA championships: Arkansas, Duke, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan (all from power conferences) and Butler (decidedly not).

To make matters worse for the angle-starved sportswriters covering the tournament, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) also went on an improbable hot streak, joining Butler in the Final Four.  This marked the first year that two teams from “mid-major” conferences had ever landed in the Final Four.  Such a momentous occasion should be a cause for celebration in the Cinderella-centric world of sports marketing, right?

Well… not quite.

3. Don’t Throw Your Own Product Under the Bus

Not only could few reporters find a compelling way to spin this tale of two Cinderellas, but some sportswriters went so far as to complain that the success of underdogs was ruining their enjoyment of the tournament.  In other words, no one was prepared to sell this story because it didn’t fit their lone marketing playbook. So, instead, they did what bad mid-level managers do: they disparaged uniqueness, so they wouldn’t have to think differently.

The problem isn’t that VCU or Butler are bad or uninteresting teams, because if they were, they wouldn’t be in the Final Four in the first place; the problem is that making an unknown quantity sound interesting is hard. (And, in Butler’s case, getting into the spotlight twice in a row still hasn’t been enough to inspire the sports industry’s promoters to grant Butler a brand identity beyond, “Wow, them again?”)

Teams with legacies, brand identities and generations of fans like Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA are easy to root for (or against) because they’ve had decades of prior exposure at the national level.  Newfound gems like Butler and VCU are harder to sell because they have a lower Q rating, and they may not be in the spotlight long enough to create a lasting impression.  In short, their success paradoxically makes promoting that same success more difficult.

4. The Packaging Defines the Package

You are what your audience believes you are.  For example, I can’t believe it’s been 13 years since Kentucky had previously been in the Final Four, because Kentucky is a legacy program; they’ve been a top team for so long, it feels like they’ve been in the Final Four every year.

Meanwhile, Butler’s gone twice in a row, but the media still portray a currently-dominant program as an underdog because they come from a mid-major conference.  To the media, it doesn’t matter what Butler has accomplished; they can’t find a way to tell a story that doesn’t start with where Butler comes from.

If Butler was being sold as one of the top 5 programs in the country, rather than an overachiever that won’t step aside, this Final Four would have felt a lot more like a traditional epic and a lot less like an accident.

What Happens Next Year?

Will the NCAA find a way to spin what it couldn’t sell as it was happening — the hot streaks of two under-the-radar brands — into grist for the promotional mill for the 2011-2012 season?

Can Connecticut, a school that spends an inordinate amount of time being investigated by the NCAA for violations, serve as a squeaky-clean mascot for all that’s grand and wonderful about March Madness?

And, if Butler somehow inexplicably fights their way into a third straight Final Four, will the sportswriters (and the NCAA) know how to sell them then?

Let’s hope so.  After all, they have a year to come up with something better than… oh, right:



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