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Naked Arena

NCAA Final Four venue will be free of corporate sponsorship ads

By Scott Becher

March 17, 2000 2:06 p.m. ET

For many sponsors or advertisers, in-arena advertising signs are highly coveted. Yet, it is probably the most overrated media buy in sports marketing.

Two reasons why. First, given the nature of a sign, it's virtually impossible to accomplish anything other than corporate or brand logo impressions.

Second, there are typically a handful -- or more -- other sponsors visible in the arena as the same time, making it difficult to stand out amid the visual clutter.

Yet, arena sign exposure is measurable, and it remains one of the most fundamental aspects of many team and league sponsorships.

In fact, marketers are usually willing to pay a premium for this sort of presence.

So chances are you probably can't remember the last time you viewed a college basketball game in an arena that had no sponsor signage on the scoreboard.

Or on the court.

With no corporate courtside banners.

And not one fan promotion delivered by the PA announcer.

Ironically, it turns out this "generic" arena plays host to the biggest college basketball games of the year -- college basketball's Final Four semi-final and championship games.

And despite having some of the most aggressive marketers on board as sponsors, the NCAA is determined to keep them at arms length from the Final Four action on the court.

The college football championship bowl games are not managed by the NCAA and feature heavy sponsor presence. Not so for basketball or the rest of the collegiate sports championships.

"One of the missions of the committee administering the basketball tournament is to maintain the focus on the student-athlete," said Bill Hancock, the NCAA's director of the men's basketball championship.

"The means of achieving that is creating a non-commercial atmosphere so the focus of everyone in the arena is on the kids," Hancock said. "After all, the Final Four is all about 60 kids competing for a national championship."

Of course, it is also about big business, much of it due to the involvement of about 18 corporate partners, who ante up millions of dollars in annual sponsorship fees, and typically account for a significant percentage of the Final Four TV ad sales activity.

For General Motors, one of the NCAA's largest sponsors, their sizable media presence lessens the need for in-arena signage.

"I don't find courtside signage all that valuable anyway since there is typically so much clutter," said Matthew Pace of GM Eventworks.

"We do plenty of TV advertising to get our message out to Final Four fans," Pace said. On-site signage is about awareness more than anything else, and we have plenty of awareness.

"But if we were the only sponsor allowed to advertise in the arena, or we had visibility on the court, that would be different."

But not likely to occur any time soon despite signs the NCAA is softening its stringent in-arena standards.

They do permit manufacturers' logos on game equipment and accessories.

For the past couple of years, sponsor GTE has branded a seat cushion placed throughout the venue.

Pepsi's Aquafina water now receives recognition on the refreshment coolers adorning each sideline.

At the same time, Gillette's well known $2 Million Three-Point Challenge is still relegated to a staging location at nearby Hoop City rather than the Final Four venue itself.

"The NCAA has relaxed its policies, some as a result of suggestions from our corporate partners and it's a constant struggle to determine what is OK and what isn't OK," Hancock said. "Our partners would love to have their signs and promotions in the building. We know that. But our partners also have been respectful of our mission.

"I'm reminded of the Supreme Court Justice [John Paul Stevens] who once said 'I can't define pornography, but I'll know it when I see it.' That's how we feel about over-commercialism."

For now, anyway, a basketball arena that's virtually naked, suits the NCAA just fine.

More FoxSportsBiz columns by Scott Becher