Slam dunk: Lessons for advertisers from 2024’s college basketball tournaments

By Samia Maisha
Marketing Coordinator - Advertise
April 22, 2024

This year’s college basketball tournaments captivated audiences like never before — a testament to sports’ power to unite and inspire fans. But beyond the thrilling dunks and impressive assists, there’s a bigger story about audience engagement and innovative advertising strategies. Let’s explore how “March Madness” sheds light on winning ways for brands, advertisers, and agencies to reach fans during sports’ most memorable moments. With strategies like contextual targeting, brands can tap into the magic of March basketball fever all year long.

Meeting fans on multiple screens

Effective programmatic advertising for sports works best when brands make a splash on multiple channels. That’s because 83% of internet users in the US engage with the internet on a separate device while simultaneously watching TV.

Even if they’re chilling at home watching the game on TV at home on the couch, sports fans still often engage on their phones. There’s so much interesting content to supplement their watching experience: refreshing in-app news, stats, and scores; posting reactions on social media; or killing time with a mobile game during a lull in the action. 

Sports teams get in on the action on social media to encourage fan engagement, too. For instance, social media accounts of the Sweet 16 women’s tournament teams posted about 130 times each during just the first two rounds. This added up to more than 2,000 social posts in a few short days, garnering 140M+ impressions (overwhelmingly on mobile devices), as well as 3.4M engagements. By some estimates, the “social value” of this activity topped $3M. 

College basketball tournament apps for mobile, CTV, and desktop

Another indicator that brands need to hit multiple screens? The NCAA offers dedicated March Madness apps for iOS, Android, Apple laptops and desktops, multiple CTV platforms, and even Xbox. 

Image source: NCAA

This multi-channel behavior presents a unique opportunity for brands to reach diverse audiences across devices and at different touchpoints in the customer journey. 

By the numbers: 2024 college basketball tournaments

Just how big were the 2024 college basketball tournaments?

  • 136 teams played in 134 games
  • 33.7M TV viewers: combined men’s and women’s final games
  • 121% increase in viewership for the women’s tournaments, year-over-year

Sources: NCAA, Statista

Expanding interest, growing audiences

But who exactly are brands reaching across all these screens? Gone are the days of assuming a monolithic, stereotypical college sports fanbase. In 2024, the NCAA women’s tournament continued shattering records, beating even 2023’s unprecedented viewership.

Final game between Iowa vs. South Carolina was the most-watched women’s college basketball of all time — and the most-watched college basketball game since 2019, averaging 18.7M viewers. For the Final Four games, the women’s tournament saw a year-over-year growth of 142% in viewership, according to ESPN.

Brands score big with contextual advertising

How can advertisers make the most of engaged audiences during riveting sports events like these college basketball tournaments? Especially now, as shifting privacy regulations are making targeting and measurement harder? Contextual advertising is a privacy-safe win for sports marketing. With contextual, brands target content, not consumers. For example, an athletic gear ad makes perfect sense in the middle of an article about college sports. The brand doesn’t need any user data to get their product in front of an interested, engaged audience.

Why contextual is a slam dunk for brands and advertisers:

  • Relevance and engagement: Displaying ads when users actively engage increases the likelihood of their interest and conversion.
  • Brand safety: Brands can ensure their ads appear alongside suitable content and avoid negative association with irrelevant or harmful material.
  • Contextual is easier than you think! Implementing contextual is simpler since it doesn’t require complex first-party data analysis or user tracking.

Verve Group’s contextual solution, Moments.AI, is a top choice for effective sports marketing. In fact, Moments.AI recently earned the prestigious Digiday Awards Europe for Best Contextual Targeting. Our platform also powers Visual Intent, an industry-first partnership between Getty Images and Verve Group that places brands’ messages alongside Getty’s premium visual content. This empowers brands to connect with audiences during pivotal sports and cultural events, enhancing brand recall and driving intent to purchase. 

Whether it’s college basketball, glamorous galas, or anything in between, contextual advertising during high-visibility events is a winning game plan for brands.

Teaming up for purposeful advertising

Each spring at Verve Group, we run a college basketball bracket challenge with an ad-tech twist: “March ‘Ad’ness.” This bracket challenge lets our clients and partners across ad tech get in on the tournament fun with prizes. In the spirit of celebration, Verve Group matched the winning amount by donating to Eden Reforestation Projects, an organization dedicated to tackling climate change by planting trees and restoring forests. This year’s March ‘Ad’ness led to planting 1,344 trees.

That’s a wrap on the 2024 college basketball tournaments! March 2025 may be far away, but there’s plenty of meaningful sports moments for advertisers year -round. Want to get in the game? Let us know anytime.

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