Close up of a basketball hoop and multiple hands reaching for an airborne basketball

Few annual sporting events create as much buzz as March Madness. For two weeks every year, college basketball fans and non-fans alike tune in to watch teams from across the US compete for the national championship.

Where there’s hype, there’s opportunity. And brands across the US have taken notice, with an increasing number running special consumer promotions each year to capitalize on the event.

What is March Madness?

March Madness is another name for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. Taking place over two hectic weeks from mid-March to early April, 68 college teams compete in a single elimination tournament to be crowned national champion.

The first tournament, consisting of just eight teams, took place in 1939. It continued to expand in the decades since until the NCAA introduced the format we know and love today in 1985.

Illinois high school official Henry V. Porter coined the phrase ‘March Madness’ to describe the inaugural tournament. However, it was CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger who would popularize the nickname in the early 1980s, to describe the hectic schedule and frequent upsets that have become synonymous with the tournament.

March Madness: A Golden Opportunity for Brands

Millions of viewers watch the action unfold every year. In 2022, the tournament attracted an average audience of 10.7 million per gamea 13% increase from the previous year. With so many eyes glued to their screens, competition for ad space is fierce. It’s also expensive. A 30-second spot during the championship game can cost as much as $2 million.

Few brands can afford to compete in this high-stakes environment. But TV advertising is by no means your only opportunity to capitalize on March Madness. According to WalletHub, beer sales increase by 19% during March Madness. And it’s a similar story for popular party foods, like pizza and chicken wings. This makes it the perfect time to run a promotion.

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Score a Slam Dunk with These 4 March Madness Promotion Ideas

1. Partner with a Bar or Restaurant

Community is a huge part of sport. There’s nothing quite like watching your favorite teams in a packed bar. Whether it’s celebrating moments of individual brilliance, lambasting questionable refereeing decisions, sharing their opinions on the coach’s strategy, or cheering on the underdog – people love coming together to watch the action.

With so many games taking place in such a short space of time, bars across the US are arguably the best place to enjoy the tournament. And with the right partnership, brands can capitalize on this influx of traffic.

Sports bars often provide discounts on beer and snacks over the course of the tournament to attract customers. For food and alcohol brands, this makes March Madness the perfect opportunity to reach new customers.

There are other opportunities, too. Some bars run contests during the tournament to add a touch of gamification to their promotions. For example, asking patrons to guess the winner or score of a particular game or seeing who can score the most baskets to liven up the traditional halftime lull.

Then there’s Buffalo Wild Wings…

The Jewel Stool

For March Madness 2019, Buffalo Wild Wings wanted to try something different. Specifically, they wanted to capitalize on the spike in vasectomies that occurs during the tournament every year. To that end, they installed custom barstools at two locations: one in New York and one in Los Angeles. Called the Jewel Stool, the center of each stool featured cooling apparatus to provide some much needed “numbing relief” for patrons. The promotion’s tongue-in-cheek humor helps Buffalo Wild Wings take advantage of an unusual trend, get people talking, and build excitement.

2. Back the Bracket with a Themed Contest

One of the best things about March Madness is the bracket. Every year, millions of people fill in their tournament brackets – collecting online rumors and pouring over form guides in an effort to chart the course of the famously unpredictable tournament.

Lean into this by running a contest that asks players to fill out a bracket and share their picks with you online. In exchange, players can win prizes for accurately predicting results and the overall tournament winner. These can be anything from a care package full of your most popular products to an experience day or a cash reward. The important thing is to offer something customers value.

To keep players engaged throughout the tournament, consider awarding prizes to the highest-scoring players at the end of each round. Alternatively, you could use a live scoreboard to allow players to see how they compare to others and indulge their competitive instincts.

Wendy’s March Madness Bracket Builder

US fast-food chain Wendy’s struck gold in 2017 with its March Madness Bracket Builder. What set the promotion apart was its use of chatbots to help participants build their bracket game by game and keep them informed and engaged with regular updates. The promotion generated over 8 million organic and earned impressions through sharing.

3. Join the Conversation on Social Media

Every year, March Madness triggers a flurry of social media activity. According to Statista, 52% of viewers are active on social media during the tournament. While research from Sprout Social reveals that March Madness-related topics reached over 576,000 engagements and 1.57 billion impressions on Twitter on the first two days of the tournament alone.

Joining social media conversations – where it makes sense for your brand – is a great way to engage with customers and promote your products during March Madness. The most successful brands take this one step further by running themed social media promotions to capitalize on the excitement the tournament generates.

FanDuel March Madness Memes

US betting company FanDuel harnessed the power of the hashtag to drive engagement during March Madness 2022. Throughout the tournament, the company shared a number of amusing posts with the caption #MarchMadness to get in on the fun. As well as making fans laugh, the posts generated roughly 1,000 engagements and 22.29 million potential impressions.

4. Build Excitement (and Sales) with a Giveaway

Sweepstakes, also known as giveaways, are one of the simplest and most popular consumer promotions. And for good reason: they’re easy to set up and, if you do it right, even easier to enter. All players have to do is perform a simple action – like signing up for your mailing list, scanning a code, or liking a Tweet – for a chance to win a great prize. It’s a great way to build excitement and drum up interest in your brand.

The key to a successful giveaway is offering relevant, valuable rewards. Brands in the food and drinks industry are masters of this tactic. Countless brands – from global chains like Pizza Hut to local breweries – have increased sales during March Madness by offering giveaways on popular products. But the opportunities extend to other industries, too.

For example, a sports apparel brand could offer two tickets to the championship game. While an electronics brand could offer players the chance to win a 4K TV, so the winner can watch the tournament in style.

Overtime Wingtime

Buffalo Wild Wings has cemented its place as the place to watch March Madness with its Overtime Wingtime giveaway. Whenever a game goes to overtime, Blazin’ Rewards members can claim six free boneless wings. During the 2021 tournament, America’s largest sports bar chain gave away over 700,000 free wings to customers across the US.

Don’t Miss Out on March Madness

March Madness is one of the more niche events in the retail calendar. It can also be a little difficult to navigate, due to the rules and regulations imposed by the NCAA. For example, the NCAA forbids brands from using certain words and phrases in their marketing. This includes Elite Eight, Final Four, and even March Madness itself.

While March Madness won’t have the same effect on customer engagement and sales as Christmas or Black Friday, it presents a genuine opportunity for brands. With the right strategy and a little ingenuity, any brand in any industry can make March Madness work for them.