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NCAA Tournament a Slam Dunk for Brands in 2019

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament wrapped up on Monday night, with the Virginia Cavaliers winning a thrilling game in overtime over the Texas Tech Red Raiders, 85-77. And while there was plenty of action on the court — especially once we got to the Final Four — there was plenty of buzz generated around the games as well via television advertisers and social video.

According to TV ad measurement company iSpot.tv, 155 brands appeared during the entire NCAA Tournament — excluding network partners and NCAA spots. Those brands accounted for 363 unique ads, 5,252 airings and 8,688 minutes of ad time. The estimated spend was $932.7 million across all of the live games, with nearly 24.2 billion total impressions.

AT&T, one of the NCAA’s corporate champions, was the event’s biggest advertiser by a significant amount — airing 16 different spots a total of 282 times. While fellow wireless providers Verizon and Spectrum also appeared during the tournament, it was really AT&T’s show and the brand made the most of it.

Aside from AT&T, the auto industry was all over every commercial break. Of the top 15 brand advertisers by spend, six were either automakers or insurance companies. Buick led the way there, sitting second overall among all NCAA Tournament advertisers by spend. GEICO, Progressive, Infiniti, GMC and State Farm were the other auto-related companies sitting among those top 15 brands.

That cross-section of top brands shouldn’t surprise too much given the typical March Madness audience. This year, 71.6% of viewers were age 35 or older, and nearly 61% of the total audience was male. Fitting that profile, automakers and insurance companies were the top industries to advertise during the tournament, followed by quick serve restaurants, wireless companies, mobile devices and beer.

Those audiences were tuned in throughout the tournament across devices, but the viewership numbers really peaked in the final couple rounds. Despite an untraditional Final Four of Virginia, Texas Tech, Michigan State and Auburn, the close nature of the games really grabbed attention.

Using data from Inscape, the TV data company with glass-level insights from a panel of more than 10 million smart TVs, we were able to look at the minute-by-minute audience numbers, and the increases that came from the Final Four’s most exciting moments.

As Inscape’s image explains above, you can see the viewership rise over the course of the Virginia vs. Auburn semifinal game, peaking when Virginia took a 10-point lead over the Tigers. Auburn’s late comeback got audiences back in the door, with the height of that rebound spike coming in the closing seconds during the controversial foul call that rewarded UVA’s Kyle Guy with three foul shots to effectively win the game.

In the case of the later semifinal between Texas Tech and Michigan State, the audience was higher at the start due to a strong carryover from the previous, exciting matchup. And it trended up and stayed there for much of the contest. Texas Tech pulled away in the final 10 minutes, leading to a slight drop-off. But viewership was at its highest at the conclusion when the Red Raiders clinched their trip to the national title game.

Despite a late East Coast start (9:20 p.m. ET), viewership rose swiftly throughout the broadcast for the championship game, rising to a peak as the teams were deadlocked in overtime. As Virginia pulled away in the late hours, viewership fell off. But not before winding up on an evening-high 5.6% of TVs. Like the previous UVA game, the ending had some controversy to it. Still, the questionable calls and clutch shots made for compelling viewing.

A couple brands even got to capitalize on the thrilling aspect of the final game as well. Right after regulation ended, CBS cut to commercial for just one minute, where viewers saw two different creatives — from Buffalo Wing Wilds and AT&T — both directly tailored to overtime. The captive audience paid full attention to both spots, however, with AT&T’s “OK March Madness: Overtime” ad tallying a 98.71 attention score.

Brands didn’t just rely on commercials to get in front of basketball fans, either. Many used social video as a means to capture eyeballs looking for any and all NCAA Tournament content. Using data from social video measurement company Tubular Labs, we looked at the cross-platform content with the most views from the first games of the tournament (March 19) through the day after the championship (April 9) as reactions poured in.

Buick actually had the most-viewed video related to March Madness in the timeframe, earning 3.9 million views on its Fandom U video starring Lamorne Morris (previously of Fox’s “New Girl”). Degree Men also incorporated former Monmouth bench players into its campaign around #BenchMoves, picking up 3.2 million views (fourth-most of any March Madness video). AT&T’s pick-up basketball video with ESPN’s Laura Rutledge had 2.3 million and was the 12th-most viewed video.

Publishers also found plenty of success during the event — though it certainly helped to have rights to the game and locker room footage. Turner-owned Bleacher Report and House of Highlights had seven of the top 15 March Madness videos by views, and the official NCAA March Madness feed had another two. Barstool sports was one of the only unaffiliated publishers to get much traction with NCAA Tournament-themed content, but still only wound up with two of the top 35 videos.