March Madness University Advertising Trends


Editorial note: This article is written in an extremely unprofessional first-person voice, please try to overcome your desire to vomit. This is both a stylistic choice and a way to disclose that the author is a BYU Alum and made some assumptions based on watching BYU football.

March Madness means college basketball and college basketball means… a drop in college advertising, apparently. This is not what I expected. As someone whose sports consumption consists of the Super Bowl (mostly for the commercials), professional climbing, BYU football, the Olympics, and just a little bit of MLB, I assumed that March Madness would be a time when colleges and universities would unveil new ads promoting their academics while their athletes were competing on the court. I assumed this because I see this ad, often more than once, during every BYU football game. Don’t worry, this isn’t a plug for BYU, it’s just anecdotal evidence in an article about college advertising during one of the worst times of the year for college advertising.

Collegiate Advertising

Now, I say one of the worst times of the year for college advertising because advertising for colleges and universities drops from January until March every year. Airings tend to stay at this low point from March until about August, or the start of the next school year, when kids are thinking about college tours and applications. Then they rise for a bit, fall, and then rise again during football playoffs and bowl games. So you can understand why I thought colleges would air ads during the biggest basketball tournament of the year. This past year was an anomaly, so it doesn’t hold quite as much weight when it comes to trends, but the week of December 27, we tracked 21,000 ad airings from colleges and universities. Last week, we tracked just 12,000. For a visualization, the graph below shows the weekly airing data from August 2018 through August 2019, the last normal year we have on the books.

College Advertising Analytics

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the college advertising that did happen this year. Of the 68 colleges and universities that sent teams to March madness, only 17 of them have aired ads since the tournament began. However, not all 17 of them aired ads during games – only three teams did that. Of those 17 teams that were on air at some point in the last month, only 3 debuted new ads during the tournament. You can see why I started this article with the general trends of collegiate advertising.

The top advertiser since the tournament began has been Independence University. Independence U was followed closely by Grand Canyon University, who is the top advertiser that is also represented by one of the teams in the tournament. From both advertisers we’ve seen over 4,000 airings since March 13. Both advertisers are heavily investing in and recruiting for their online programs, which follows a trend we’ve seen in most collegiate advertising: remote learning. Even schools who are not traditionally online schools have been emphasizing their remote learning achievements and options. Like the ad from Drexel below, which is one of the few new ads we tracked from school sin the tournament.

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