By Rachel Bachman
Companies including AT&T Inc., Coca-Cola Co. and others
together pay more than $200 million every year to associate their
brands with the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Their
sponsorship fees give them the exclusive right to associate with 90
NCAA sports championships.
Yet the big sponsorship dollars aren't helping any of the sports
except one -- Division I men's basketball -- prove the commercial
worth of their championship events and attract new investment that
could expand their audiences.
That's because the corporate sponsorship dollars aren't paid to
the NCAA at all. Instead, a decade ago the NCAA handed off its
sponsorship program to CBS and Turner Sports as part of the
broadcasting deal for the men's basketball tournament.
CBS and Turner make a fixed annual payment -- currently $850
million -- to the NCAA that increases each year. The networks make
most of their money from that deal by selling ads for the men's
But they also control the rights to sell sponsorships for all
NCAA-run sports championships -- a sideline that this year brought
in roughly $211 million, according to an estimate by the IEG
Sponsorship Intelligence Database. As stipulated in the NCAA
contract, CBS and Turner keep that sponsorship revenue.
CBS and Turner don't sell individual sponsorships to specific
sports. They sell broad NCAA sponsorships, typically to companies
that are interested in men's basketball. That setup makes it
challenging for sports like women's basketball and gymnastics to
build support from sponsors, often one of the largest sources of
revenue for sporting events.
"The current deal provides a wonderful sense of financial
security for the NCAA and the membership," said Amy Huchthausen,
commissioner of the Division-I America East Conference. "I think
the question is, Why are we limiting these other sports and other
championships from providing even more security -- while maybe
being in conflict, or at least creating a tension, around gender
The NCAA's sponsorship outsourcing has upsides. It streamlines
the sales process, gives NCAA staff less to worry about and
provides value to CBS and Turner, the NCAA's most important
An NCAA spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal that the NCAA's
sponsorships "support nearly half a million student-athletes and 90
The spokeswoman said that sponsors may choose to supplement
their agreement with additional ad dollars on ESPN, such as Capital
One's presenting sponsorship of the telecasts of the women's
basketball selection show and Final Four. She directed questions
about sponsorship revenue to CBS and Turner, which declined to
In March, the NCAA faced a furor when a player's viral video
showed the women's basketball tournament's meager weightlifting
setup compared with the men's sprawling facility. That led to a
broader outcry over other differences between the men's and women's
tournaments -- such as the NCAA's practice of withholding from the
women the use of the powerful "March Madness" brand even though
it's trademarked for both tournaments.
In response to the criticism, the NCAA issued a statement that
portrayed the men's tournament as a financial juggernaut and the
women's tournament as a financial loser.
"After both direct and indirect expenses were accounted for in
these championships, the total net income for men's basketball was
$864.6 million, while women's basketball lost $2.8 million. This is
the largest loss of any NCAA championship."
The NCAA statement didn't spell out the way in which the
collective sponsorship rights are packaged in the broadcast deal
for the men's tournament. Similarly, broadcast rights for the
women's tournament aren't sold separately, but are part of a
14-year contract with ESPN to air about two dozen NCAA sports
championships through 2024. This year, the deal was worth nearly
The package deals mean that the NCAA doesn't seek individual
broadcast or sponsorship revenue for the women's tournament or any
of the other NCAA championships it runs. (Top-division college
football operates its own championship and sells its own
The exclusive sponsorship tie-ups that are made via the men's
basketball deal can deprive the other sports of potential revenue,
says Robin Harris, Ivy League executive director and a former
member of the NCAA Competition Oversight Committee, which oversees
championships other than basketball and football.
She said that hosts of NCAA championships -- universities,
conferences and local sports commissions -- long have been
frustrated that they aren't allowed to sell sponsorships in
numerous product categories because of exclusivity agreements in
the NCAA's sponsorships sold by CBS and Turner.
If the NCAA's official car-rental company doesn't advertise at
the men's or women's ice hockey championships, for example, local
organizers can't sell sponsorships to any other car-rental company.
The NCAA's 18 current sponsors include fast food, insurance and
Harris suggested the NCAA add a stipulation to sponsorship
agreements that would require a sponsor to spend a minimum amount
of money at a championship, "and if they don't, they lose that
exclusivity at that championship."
The women's basketball final drew more than 4 million viewers
this year, up 10.5% from 2019, and its TV audience often ranks
second in size among all NCAA-run championships. The men's
basketball final drew 17 million viewers, down 13.8% from 2019.
The NCAA's three top-tier sponsors, Capital One, AT&T and
Coca-Cola, didn't comment directly on the NCAA's sponsorship-sales
approach. But the three companies emphasized in statements to The
Wall Street Journal their commitment to supporting all NCAA sports
and women's sports in particular.
"We have been in touch with the NCAA regarding our
disappointment in the treatment disparities between male and female
athletes," a Coca-Cola spokeswoman said.
The men's basketball tournament generates a large majority of
sponsorship value -- but not all of it, said Rob Temple, a former
ESPN executive who worked extensively on sponsorships.
"Why doesn't the NCAA allow there to be an official NCAA
softball?" said Temple, now CEO of FishBait, a lifestyle marketing
consultancy. By not letting individual sports seek sponsorships, he
added, "It's clearly unrealized value, unrealized opportunity."
The NCAA's sponsorship setup seems unlikely to change soon.
Several years ago the NCAA extended its deal with CBS and Turner
for an average of about $1 billion a year through 2032.
Write to Rachel Bachman at Rachel.Bachman@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 13, 2021 07:14 ET (11:14 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.