NCAA tourney awash in cash

| Monday, April 5, 2010

Robert Morris University played one game in this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament but likely earned millions of dollars from the exposure.

Although the team lost its opening round game in overtime to second-seeded Villanova University, traffic to the university's Web site increased 40 percent and the school ranked among top trending topics on Twitter.

Similar exposure when Robert Morris made the tourney last year was worth about $2 million, said spokesman Jonathan Potts. Applications increased 35 percent, but that could be due to a lot of factors, he added.

"It greatly helps our name recognition," Potts said. "There's no doubt about that. The way the game played out this year was a tremendous boost. Short of a victory, we couldn't have written a better story line."

The three-week March Madness tournament, which wraps up tonight with Duke vs. Butler, has grown so popular that National Collegiate Athletic Association officials are talking about making it even bigger — to raise even more money from television rights, sponsorships and other marketing opportunities. In coming weeks, officials might consider expanding the field from 65 teams to 96, or even 128.

More teams means more money, and greater exposure, experts said.

"This is the NCAA's cash cow," said Scott Rosner, associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "As an event, it certainly is one of the bigger ones in the American sports scene."

CBS is paying $617 million this year for the rights to broadcast the entire tournament, and it would pay more than $2.1 billion more over the next three years unless the NCAA decides to get out of the deal and seek more money.

Television ad spending on the tournament totaled $589 million last year, according to Kantar Media, a New York City-based agency that tracks media spending. That's second only to the National Football League playoffs, and more than post-season ad revenue for Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association or college football.

"It's a major event, and it obviously starts with the TV rights," said Steve Greenberg, sports marketing executive in residence at Duquesne University.

Unlike the Super Bowl, which gives advertisers the largest audience but only one or two shots to reach viewers, the NCAA tournament sustains viewers over 64 games, said Jeremy Mullman, a sports marketing reporter at Advertising Age, an industry magazine in Chicago.

"It's big and it lasts a long time," Mullman said. "You can really just keep hitting them."

The tournament can mean big money for participating schools, experts said.

Under NCAA rules, each conference receives a share of money based on the number of its teams in the tournament and the number of games they play. Teams that survive longer in the playoffs make more money for their conference. It's then up to each conference to distribute the money, either to the winning school or spread among schools.

The Big East, which includes West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh, received more than $19 million last year. That was more than any other conference received. The Northeast Conference, which sent Robert Morris University to the tournament, received $1.4 million.

About the only ones not getting paid — at least directly, anyway — are players. They get the benefit of an athletic scholarship and the lifetime benefits that brings, said Rosner, at Wharton.

"Therein lies the rub," he said. "That pales in comparison to the amount of television revenue."

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