After Auburn freshman Kharyssa Richardson suffered a head injury in November 2022 at the Las Vegas Invitational, she lay on the hardwood floor for 45 minutes waiting for the paramedics to arrive.
For brands with media investments in the NCAA, this was a major wake-up call to the inequities in college basketball and a sign that the way companies value women’s sports needed to change.
The brand had already planned for a spot starring two GOATs—South Carolina Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley and recently retired Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, known by all as Coach K—that would run during the men’s and women’s March Madness tournaments as part of the company’s three-year deal with the NCAA.
However, that was before 10 women’s college basketball teams accepted invitations to play in the tournament at The Mirage hotel and casino, and—instead of a setup worthy of the nation’s best talent—elite athletes were asked to use their own hotel towels for sweat towels, and there were no medical teams on site.
When Aflac CMO Garth Knutson saw the inequities taking place in Vegas, he knew the brand had to act.
“My team said, ‘What can we do as marketers to help better support women’s college basketball?’” Knutson told Adweek.
“We were marching toward the same old status quo as what we’d done in our previous two years,” he added. “We were going to show up to the men’s Final Four because that’s what you do. And we’re like, ‘Nope. We’re going to change it.’”
In what Knutson described as a “hurricane pivot,” Aflac completely changed its March Madness game plan.
The day after the accident in Vegas, Knutson paused every activation and dollar going toward the men’s Final Four on the ground, shifting it to the women’s Final Four.
As a result, Aflac’s on-site fan experience moved from the men’s Final Four Fan Fest in Houston to the women’s Final Four Tourney Town in Dallas.
Though Aflac previously had media spend in the women’s tournament, it has now been “upped significantly.” As a result, the brand has three times as many spots in the women’s tournament as it does in the men’s. Knutson said the company would continue to move in that direction.
The 30-second spot will run across linear, digital and social, building on Aflac’s college football spots starring Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders and Nick Saban. It also brings back the Aflac duck’s archenemy, Gap Goat.
Aflac’s March Madness-specific plan split is 83% linear and 17% OTT, though the numbers are skewed because of costs associated with the brand’s spots in the two Final Four and Championship games, which account for more than 50% of its linear spend for March Madness. Overall, the plan is more OTT, according to the company.
There will also be out-of-home campaigns running in both Houston and Dallas, with “significantly more” running in the latter. Some of that creative will feature only Staley, focusing on the partnership between the coach and the brand.
“I’ve been telling people, ‘Take the men’s and women’s part out of it.’ I truly believe that Dawn Staley is going to be the biggest star of March Madness this year,” Knutson said.
Dawn’s making a list
Staley, an NCAA and WNBA legend in her own right, is gunning to lead her Gamecocks to their third NCAA championship after the team went 29-0 in the regular season. And she’s exactly the person Aflac has been looking for.
“We’re the experts in helping with coverage that health insurance doesn’t cover,” Knutson said. “But we’re not the experts in sports, college sports, women’s college basketball or the inequities in sports. But you who knows firsthand all of that? Dawn Staley.”
As part of the overall campaign, Aflac and Staley teamed up for Dawn’s List, an outline of inequities in women’s college sports, in collaboration with the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
Elements of the list include resource equity, a lack of investment in the women’s Final Four fan experience compared to the men’s, and more opportunities to enable community engagement.
“The gaps identified for Dawn’s List represent real issues faced by female athletes on a daily basis that extend beyond the basketball court,” Staley said in a statement. “I’m proud to team up with Aflac, a company with a long-standing history of advocating for those who encounter health care inequities, as we work together to help close these gaps for female athletes.”
As part of that pledge, Aflac is working to raise awareness for the next generation of assistant coaches through a sponsorship with the WBCA and the Assistant Coaches of the Year award.
The fan activation in Dallas, “Help Beat the Gap,” includes a basketball obstacle course meant to symbolize playing through real-life obstacles, emphasizing how Aflac can close the gaps that traditional health insurance doesn’t cover.
As part of community engagement, Staley and the brand will deliver My Special Aflac Ducks to a children’s hospital to provide support for pediatric cancer and sickle cell patients. Aflac will also give away more than $1 million in funding in 2023 as part of its grant programs.
“This is just the beginning. It’s year three of our March Madness NCAA sponsorship, but it’s year one of our Dawn Staley relationship, and you can expect to see more of that moving forward,” said Knutson.
Getting all its ducks in order
Aflac hasn’t yet made the decision if it will continue with its NCAA sponsorship after the contract expires this year, but the brand is committed to maintaining its investment in women’s sports.
“If I had to make a decision right now, I would spend significantly more in women’s college basketball, and I’m considering not even spending at all in men’s and going all in on women’s,” Knutson said, noting that more than 80% of healthcare decisions are made by women.
An all-women’s strategy could still score big in the ratings. Last year, Staley led her Gamecocks to a national title in front of nearly 5 million viewers on ESPN, and a regular-season game between South Carolina and LSU averaged 1.5 million this season—going up against the Super Bowl pregame show.
“It’s also something that could be good for business,” Knutson added. “The evolution to more women’s sport from an advertising standpoint? Absolutely.”