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Conference tournament sponsors run the gamut, from shaving cream to life insurance to tires

On3 imageby:Andy Wittry03/08/23


What do the Hawaiian Islands and companies in the banking, shaving cream and tire industries have in common? Each sponsored at least one NCAA Division I basketball conference tournament this month.

If you tune into do-or-die basketball during the first two weeks of this month of madness, you’ll see and hear the results of these sponsorships in action.

The 2023 Hercules Tires Big West Basketball Championships, presented by the Hawaiian Islands.

“I joke that we probably have the longest conference tournament name in the NCAA this year,” Big West Commissioner Dan Butterly said, before adding, with tongue-in-cheek, “We probably could’ve had a couple more presenting [sponsors] if we had the space to do it.”

The sports advertising and entertainment agency Van Wagner helped the Big West secure Hercules Tires as the conference’s title sponsor several years ago. The Big West and the University of Hawaii helped negotiate a presenting sponsorship with the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which seeks exposure as well as the ability to host postseason events in the state.

As the title sponsor, Hercules Tires’ branding is displayed in a more prominent location on the court and on the stanchions below the basket. Butterly said both sponsorships will be up for renewal this year.

For some sponsorships (a list is at the bottom of the story), part of the allure comes from the longevity of a partnership. Phillips 66’s sponsorship of the Big 12 dates to 1988, when the latter was the Big 8 Conference. This marks the 35th year of the sponsorship.

“It’s the longest-running sponsorship in collegiate history,” Phillips 66 director of brand sponsorships Michael Brass said. “So, something that has been really near and dear to the folks at our company for a really long time. Our company actually also shares a really rich history in basketball … We actually way back in the day had a team called the 66ers and they were part of the AAU circuit. We had folks that played on the team that went on to the Olympics and played for our country, so basketball has always been something that our company has had a lot of proud tradition around.”

A title sponsorship can be an extension of a corporate partner’s community engagement as it seeks to promote brand awareness or reach a targeted demographic.

“We have banks all over the country,” United Fidelity Bank Vice President of Marketing Angie Peters said; United Fidelity Bank sponsored the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. “In all of our markets, we’re involved with a lot of youth athletics and academic programs within the schools, and so when this opportunity presented itself, it was just a great fit for us to kind of bring all that together.”

New York Life says it’s primarily trying to reach a young family demographic through its sponsorships of the ACC men’s tournament and both Pac-12 tournaments. “However, college basketball has such a passionate fanbase that it offers us a great opportunity to reach multiple generations of engaged fans,” Dave Williams, corporate vice president of brand creative, said in an emailed statement.

A sponsor in a tournament’s host city is a ‘perfect fit’

There are 32 NCAA Division I conferences that compete in basketball. The calculus of which potential sponsorship agreements make sense between a conference and a company can be determined by simple geography.

United Fidelity Bank is headquartered in downtown Evansville, Ind., roughly two blocks from the 11,000-seat Ford Center. The Ohio Valley Conference held its tournaments there during the first four days of March. “That was another just perfect fit for us,” Peters said.

“Their location and support for the Evansville community is so much about what we’ve become with our championship as well,” OVC commissioner Beth DeBauche said in a Zoom interview, later continuing, “I say this, and it may sound a bit hokey, but Evansville has really become a supportive community for us.”

United Fidelity Bank has eight banking centers in Evansville, which means locals are more likely to be familiar with the company. United Fidelity Bank utilized QR codes at the Ford Center to share information with fans about the bank and its locations.

Peters said United Fidelity Bank executives would consider sponsoring another conference’s tournaments if the opportunity became available, given the company’s footprint nationally.

“People that are watching on TV may not know us,” Peters said. “Again, just trying to get the name out there. ‘Oh, who is United Fidelity Bank?’ So hopefully those people will see our name, maybe for the first time, but maybe they’ll take a gander at our website and get to know a little bit better.”

The media, data and technology company LEARFIELD negotiated a sponsorship with the Idaho Central Credit Union on behalf of the Big Sky Conference. Idaho Central Credit Union is based in Idaho, and it’s a partner of Big Sky members Idaho and Idaho State.

“They have the naming rights not only of the University of Idaho’s new, gorgeous basketball arena, but they also have the naming rights where we play this tournament in Boise, at Idaho Central Arena,” Big Sky Deputy Commissioner Dan Satter said. “For all those reasons, it just makes a lot of sense. I think as they’ve kind of explained to us and to LEARFIELD, they hope to grow in the adjoining states around Idaho, which is exactly our footprint as well, so it just seems like a good match in many ways.”

The shaving-cream brand Barbasol, which sponsors the Horizon League tournaments, is headquartered in Ashland, Ohio, just off Interstate 71 between Columbus and Cleveland. An engineer named Frank Shields is credited as inventing the product in 1919 in Indianapolis, where the Horizon League office is located. Five of the conference’s 11 members are located in Indiana or Ohio.

“We’re in this six-state, Midwestern footprint, and we’re also in some major metropolitan cities,” Horizon League commissioner Julie Roe Lach said in a previous interview, when discussing the launch of the league’s conference-wide name, image and likeness marketplace. “So we do have some big companies headquartered across our footprint [whose] target market also includes the Horizon League space.”

‘Our basketball championships are the biggest event we have’

The opening-round and quarterfinal games in many mid- or low-major conference tournaments are distributed on streaming platforms, such as ESPN+. The semifinals or championship games then are available on linear TV channels, such as CBS Sports Network or ESPN, which provide national exposure to conferences that send just one team to the NCAA tournament.

In-game ad reads and graphics that promote sponsors are popular activations for audiences who watch games that are streamed or broadcast on TV.

“Obviously, we’re not high-resourced in the Big West,” Butterly said. “We don’t have the big FBS money or the big television money, so the money that we generate through our sponsorship programs – we put that directly into improving the student-athlete experience at our championships. We’re improving it obviously here.

“We’ve improved the gift quality for all of our student-athletes, not just at the basketball championships. Many conferences will do a very, very high-end gift for basketball or football, but the rest of the student-athletes get something that’s not as high-value. Ours is very consistent across all of our championships.”

Since 2016, the Missouri Valley Conference has made each game in the first two rounds of its men’s tournament available for both digital and regional, linear distribution. In the first six seasons of that distribution model, the conference averaged anywhere from 5,518 unique viewers for its opening-round and quarterfinal games in 2019 to 12,994 unique viewers in 2020, according to data obtained by On3 through a public records request.

The Valley is in the second contract year of a three-year agreement with State Farm Insurance as the title sponsor of “Arch Madness” in St. Louis, as well as a presenting sponsor for the MVC TV Network and The Valley on ESPN. In February 2021, the conference agreed to a new three-year contract with State Farm, which includes a three-year option through the 2026-27 season.

Regarding State Farm’s sponsorship of the conference, MVC athletics administrators’ minutes from October 2020 stated, “Staff has reviewed on-campus delivery expectations with institutions in return for a rights fee ($38,000).” The minutes were taken during the final contract year of the conference’s previous six-year agreement with State Farm.

For additional context, the Missouri Valley’s marketing and media committee minutes from May 2021 said LEARFIELD will provide an average annual payment of roughly $860,000 during the 2022, ’23 and ’24 contract years through Missouri Valley Conference Sports Properties. MVC Sports Properties manages the conference’s multimedia rights and sponsorship opportunities.

The presenting sponsors of basketball tournaments likely fund one of the largest sponsorship agreements for a conference.

“Our men’s and women’s basketball championship is the single biggest event we put on as a conference,” the Big Sky’s Satter said. “As an FCS conference, our football teams automatically go right into the FCS playoffs. We don’t have a football championship game, so our basketball championships are the biggest event we have every year.”

While FBS conferences host football championship games, their men’s and women’s basketball tournaments provide much more inventory across four or five consecutive days. All high-major conference tournament games are available on linear TV. Games might also be available through a streaming platform. 

“As far as broadcast, because they’re in our lockup logo, they get a lot of exposure on the court on every game that’s televised,” Pac-12 executive vice president of sales Steve Tseng said of sponsor New York Life. “That’s really important value from a TV perspective, particularly on our Tier 1 [media rights] partners.”

Pac-12 events used ‘for recruiting purposes, for corporate entertaining’

Peters said United Fidelity Bank will analyze the visitors to the company website and the engagement for its digital ads. “We have tracking mechanisms to see through the digital ads, through those certain avenues to see if we have an increase in traffic or an increase of opening accounts,” Peters said.

While discussing the bank’s return on investment, she also mentioned the company’s support of the Evansville community, which has revenue opportunities associated with the city playing host to the OVC tournaments.

New York Life offers a mobile game called Donation Dash, where users can shoot 3-pointers on behalf of their favorite ACC school in order to help local chapters of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. This season marks the fifth year of the game. There’s an ACC 3 Point Challenge app, and an augmented reality game available for fans of Pac-12 schools. New York Life says it will donate a cumulative total of $110,000 to local Boys & Girls Clubs.

New York Life also offers an on-site activation on an arena concourse, where fans can play games for a chance to win prizes and company representatives try to gather participants’ email addresses. One is a basketball shooting contest and another provides a photo opportunity.

“I think our focus was probably a bit more local and more venue-specific, within venue, than digital, but digital has been critically important to us,” the OVC’s DeBauche said, later adding, “I think from my lens, though, the smile on my face is just how lovely it was in-venue to see the support and to see how they brought their clients.”

Given the Pac-12’s West Coast footprint, there’s potential value in a partnership between the conference and an East Coast-based sponsor, Tseng said. New York Life has sponsored the Pac-12 basketball tournaments since 2014.

“They’re a great, blue-chip brand. Really strong,” Tseng said. “Been around for a hundred-plus years and based out of New York, and so to have someone like that on the West Coast for us is a really nice brand association and we really like them. … For them, what they like about us, one, is they are an East Coast brand. For them, the West Coast is a very coveted region.”

Last year, the Pac-12 hosted a career event for New York Life that featured guest speakers, recruits, New York Life sales personnel and their customers. The Pac-12 and New York Life can hold market-specific events in Phoenix or Seattle, too, Tseng said.

“They use our events for recruiting purposes, for corporate entertaining,” Tseng said, “and then also, even last week, we did a women’s workshop because they definitely have a focus on making sure they’re reaching women.”

Presenting and/or title sponsors for league tournaments

America East: Jersey Mike’s
ACC: New York Life (men’s), Ally Bank (women’s)
Big East: Jeep
Big Sky: Idaho Central Credit Union
Big South: Hercules Tires
Big Ten: TIAA
Big 12: Phillips 66
Big West: Hercules Tires, Hawaiian Islands
Colonial: Jersey Mike’s
Conference USA: TotalCare
Horizon: Barbasol
Metro Atlantic Athletic: Hercules Tires
Mid-Eastern Athletic: Wells Fargo
Missouri Valley: State Farm
Ohio Valley: United Fidelity Bank
Pac-12: New York Life
Patriot League: Penfed Credit Union
Southern: Ingles
Southland: Jersey Mike’s
Southwestern Athletic: Cricket, Starry
Summit League: Jans Corporation
Sun Belt: Hercules Tires
Western Athletic: Hercules Tires
West Coast: University Credit Union

This story has been updated to reflect that Ally Bank is the title sponsor of the ACC women’s basketball tournament.