Is March Madness the New Super Bowl?

The Super Bowl has long been much more than a game—it’s a show-and-tell moment for top advertisers to make a splash. We owe some of our cultural capital and language to iconic spots that originated as Super Bowl ads.

But advertisers and viewers alike are beginning to question the efficacy and value of these ads. As pressure mounts for Super Bowl ads to cut through the noise and make an impact, some advertisers are seizing opportunities presented by other sporting events.

Enter March Madness.

Even though the Super Bowl is still unparalleled when it comes to viewers, March Madness advertising is on the rise. Let’s examine why it’s time for advertisers to take the court.

The Pressure’s On

The pressure involved in producing a Super Bowl spot is unmatched in the advertising industry. With unlimited potential for success—and failure—nailing the story of a brand is critical, especially when advertisers know audiences are tuning in both for the game and for the commercials. There’s high risk—and the potential for high reward—that also comes with price tags in the millions.

With such high investment, returns must be nearly guaranteed. Research has shown that Super Bowl ads may not boost sales, but many advertisers have seen their spots lead to more online searches and increased overall awareness, even if it’s short-lived. It’s worth considering that the investment may not match the return on a brand’s 30-second moment in the sun.

There’s also pressure that comes from viewers who are relentless in critique. It’s just as common for brands to come under fire for their ads and achieve awareness in less-than-ideal ways. This past year’s ads were criticized as the worst of all time, which leads us to consider—are Super Bowl ads under too much scrutiny to be effective? Are viewers more interested in commenting on their success or failure than in paying attention to the brands themselves?

A Renewed Opportunity

March Madness, however, offers unique chances for brands to capitalize on a variety of audiences, cultural moments and methods of viewing.

Nearly one third of Americans planned to watch at least one game during March Madness, and many don’t watch via linear television, instead tuning in via streaming services. In 2021, viewers streamed over a billion minutes in just the first two days of the tournament. This opens the door for more platforms and nuanced approaches that align with best practices for each one. And viewership in 2022 quickly saw double-digit gains—for both the men’s and women’s tournaments.

Ad inventory for the 2022 tournament sold out despite rates increasing, which shows that more advertisers are catching the trend. Many may argue that the Super Bowl simply reaches more eyes and is therefore simply a better opportunity. However, March Madness consists of many more games, and it offers many chances to build brand recognition with the same amount—or less—of ad spend.

An investment in March Madness offers the opportunity to build brand recognition and tell a story over multiple days and weeks. Look no further than Capital One’s March Madness series, now in its seventh year. Stars Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Barkley and Spike Lee have become just as recognizable in March as brackets and basketballs. Each year the brand builds on its awareness with multiple spots and expands its reach with new athletes and celebrities, including Sue Bird and Jennifer Garner.

For Super Bowl ads, this type of storytelling may occur with additional videos or spots released on YouTube or other platforms—but typically only one spot airs live during the game. March Madness can offer a more cohesive experience of a brand’s story over multiple spots throughout the tournament without requiring viewers to divert their attention from the game to get the full story.

It’s Her Moment

It’s critical to note that the phrase “March Madness” encompasses both the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments—a recent and welcome change. This offers an opportunity that the Super Bowl simply cannot match as advertisers can take part in a major cultural moment: elevating women in sports.

Women’s basketball players represent some of the top beneficiaries of 2021’s NIL (name, image and likeness) reform. For example, Paige Bueckers, a rising junior at the University of Connecticut, boasts over 1 million Instagram followers and upwards of $1 million in earnings (she’s the first college athlete to sign with Gatorade). Even if Bueckers were the lone female athlete gaining this type of following—and she’s not—it would show that women’s basketball is on the rise.

Brands are taking notice of this trend as well. This year, Buick captured the moment with the “See Her Greatness” campaign. The brand created a series of spots that recapped several key moments in women’s sports over the past few years—with only audio. The ads featured text over a black background that explained each moment as the audio played, driving home the point that these huge moments went largely unseen. For example, we hear the play-by-play call of Arike Ogunbowale’s last-second three-pointer that won Notre Dame the 2018 National Championship in women’s basketball. But we don’t see it. Viewers of the ad not only remember the brand but resonate with their take on a current cultural moment.

Leveling the Playing Field

The truth is—Super Bowl ads aren’t going anywhere. Their rich history coupled with massive reach potential keep Super Bowl spots at the top of many brands’ wish lists. Even so, capitalizing on the popularity and growth of March Madness is undoubtedly a smart play.

Not only does March Madness offer more space for brands to make a splash in front of large audiences, it also represents greater diversification in audience, more exposure and more avenues to connect with causes that matter. Better yet, March Madness helps level the playing field for brands and audiences alike—and that’s great work we can all get behind.

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