Sunday, March 15, 2015

5 PR Lessons from the NCAA's "March Madness" Tournament

It’s here.  The brackets are out and the NCAA’s "March Madness" is upon us.  Over the next few weeks, over 68 college basketball teams will compete for a National Championship, but if that’s all this is about then few outside of some hard core bettors and die-hard basketball fans would care.

But the NCAA tournament is big.  Start with the colleges involved.  Students, parents, alumni and the fan base for each of the 68 teams in the tournament will be engaged in the process as the field whittled down to the "Final Four." 

With the exception of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, the NCAA March basketball tournament is perhaps the top sporting event where the process of finding a champion is arguably bigger than the championship game.

So, what can we learn in PR from the NCAA’s “March Madness?” 

Have a Structure – Even though it’s called March Madness, the structure for the process is anything but mad.  Brilliantly, the NCAA has branded each phase of this process.  The first week, over 68 teams represent their schools and conferences in a four-day college basketball binge.  The next week, the field is smaller and is branded the “Sweet Sixteen,” out of which come the “Elite Eight.”  They will set up the “Final Four.”  This structure provides a level of consistency that is required to sustain momentum and interest. 

Have a Story Line – The tournament to select a champion has a story line.  There are “favorites” and “underdogs.”  We know each and every year a team that’s supposed to win will lose to a team that’s just lucky to be there.  These “upsets” create a story line that feeds the tournament’s drama that unfolds over three weeks.   There are missed shots, bad calls and “buzzer beaters,” all that serve to heighten the intensity. 

Have a Means for Engagement – Brackets. “Bracketology.”  Even if you’re not a fan, chances are if you go to the office this week someone will be filling out a bracket trying to make their best guesstimates on who will win at each phase of the tournament.  Some workplaces may even make it a group thing, and you can fill out your own bracket for a chance to win a prize.

I once knew someone who picked her bracket based on the team mascots she liked, and her winning percentage in the end was higher than someone else I knew who was an avid college basketball fan.

Brackets are simple. Brackets are easy. Brackets are accessible.  In the NCAA’s case, the bracket is an effective means of engagement.  Brackets feed the buzz. 

Have a Sub-plot – As the nation starts to follow the NCAA tournament, one of the most intriguing sub-plots each year is the emergence of a "Cinderella team," one that may never should have been invited to the “big dance,” but for some reason found its way.  And now that it’s there, it’s going to beat teams it shouldn’t and run deep into the tournament, maybe even reach the Final Four.  That’s a Cinderella team.  What makes these teams confounding is that they usually destroy most peoples’ predictions and their brackets suffer, along any chances they had to win a prize.  Of course, some peoples' Cinderella teams are other peoples' "bracket busters," and love them or hate them they provide a necessary sub-plot to put the madness in March. 

Tie it all Together in One Big Moment – The weekend of the Final Four is when the best four teams face off for the national championship.  On a Saturday night, there are two games.  The winners of these games will meet in the national championship.

The night of the Final Four, people who’ve invested themselves in this process get one last night of multiple games involving the best teams.  The event is a social event, not as big but not unlike the Super Bowl, where people have parties, sports bars are packed, and host cities rake in millions. 

Then there is that national championship game.  By now, people are likely ready for it to end, but not without one final crowning moment, and that is the game.

The NCAA has honed this process over the years and it is unlike any other.

In PR, we may not be able to create our own NCAA tournaments for our organizations or clients, but we can learn from it.  We can incorporate story lines, messages, structure, accessibility and the kind of sub-plots that may be needed to keep our targeted audiences engaged. 

So, did you fill out your bracket yet?

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