Ahead of Wednesday night’s official March Madness tip-off beginning with the First Four, ESPN unveiled the next phase of its “That’s Our Move” season-long campaign for women’s basketball.
Following a record-breaking 2022 tournament—the first year the NCAA allowed the women’s edition to use March Madness branding—ESPN and brands are capitalizing on the unprecedented growth of women’s college hoops.
Building off the momentum from 2022, ESPN, which has the exclusive broadcast rights to the tournament, is running a multiplatform campaign featuring WNBA stars Arike Ogunbowale, Kelsey Plum and Destanni Henderson, all of whom had legendary NCAA careers. The NBA’s Steph Curry also makes a cameo appearance.
The spot features voiceovers from the three WNBA players, highlighting their record-breaking college moments. It also includes moments from current NCAA stars, including Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Stanford’s Cameron Brink.
“We wanted to create a campaign that made a unified statement for women’s college basketball on all our networks,” Michelle Berry, ESPN’s senior director of sports marketing, told Adweek. “For the brand and the business, and our vision of moving women’s college basketball forward, it was important for us to make sure we were leaning into our value of gender equity and asserting our leadership.”
The initial 30-second spot premiered on March 12 during the Women’s NCAA Selection Show, the second year in a row that the program aired on a Sunday versus a Monday. Despite going up against the Academy Awards, Sunday’s special pulled in 1.27 million viewers, up 18% year-over-year and the most-watched telecast since 2005.
“[The campaign] speaks to the broader movement of women’s college basketball, and from a brand standpoint, ESPN is who is providing the platform here, and we take that very seriously,” Berry said.
A ‘marketing arsenal’
ESPN worked with its in-house agency, Grande & Leonard, to create the campaign, with creative director Cheryl DiCarlo choosing to highlight Plum, Ogunbowale and Henderson.
“It was an elevation of the talent. We look around, and we see all these players that were fiercely successful in the tournament, and now that’s translating to success in the world,” DiCarlo told Adweek.
ESPN created a 30-second, 15-second and 5-second version of the spot, which will be continuously updated throughout the tournament, culminating at the Final Four in Dallas at the end of the month.
Described by Berry as a “full-blown marketing arsenal,” the campaign will run across all of ESPN’s networks, its digital and social channels and even a SuperSign in New York’s Times Square.
The network licensed Beyoncé’s music for marketing for only the second time in company history, the first time domestically.
“The music was a huge get for us,” said DiCarlo. “It’s massive for us and for the sport.”
ESPN first acquired the rights to several women’s championships in 1982, and last year’s Final Four was the most-watched since 2012, averaging 3.46 million viewers. The championship game between South Carolina and UConn was up 18% year over year, hitting 4.85 million viewers and becoming the most-watched title game since 2004.
Expect those numbers to climb this year, as the championship game will be broadcast on ABC for the first time ever.
Slam dunk sales
ESPN completely sold out its ad inventory and its sponsorship opportunities for the women’s tournament, attracting 15 broadcast sponsors and nearly 100 advertisers across linear, digital and social.
“There’s been significant demand and overall great engagement from these brands looking to support and elevate what they do around women’s sports,” Theresa Palmieri, Disney vp of advertising sports brand solutions, told Adweek. “We can take a look at ways to maximize our coverage and work with these brands to blow this out and give it the treatment that it deserves.”
A host of new advertisers joined the tournament this year, including brands like Aflac, Great Clips, Intuit QuickBooks, Oofos, Under Armour and U.S. Army.
Capital One returned as a presenting broadcast sponsor, and for the first time, Nissan has signed on as a co-presenting sponsor.
AT&T is back as the half-time show sponsor and is also presenting an alternate broadcast on ESPN2 and ESPN+ for the Final Four and championship, featuring WNBA legends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.
“We’ve typically reserved that type of treatment for big events across our platforms,” said Palmieri, referencing Monday Night Football and the college football championship game. “Now we’re doing it for the women’s tournament because this is a big event.”
Returning sponsor brands to linear include Buick, CarMax, Indeed.com, Nissan, Unilever and Werner Ladder, each with custom integrations throughout the telecast.
Auto remains one of the strongest categories, but the company is getting interest from a wide variety of brands.
“We’re seeing big, big brands, blue chip brands,” said Palmieri. “To see them doubling down and committing in this space is very telling for women’s sports and how we look to grow.”
Nissan, Principal, Wendy’s and Xfinity are sponsoring live digital shows, including coverage on-site in Dallas for the Final Four. Last year’s tournament featured the first digital live show, and this year that number has climbed to five.
As a co-presenting sponsor, Nissan will primarily be activating in the addressable and social space, a major difference from previous years. In fact, 2022 was the first year that ESPN saw an interest in advertising for its social offerings.
Palmieri noted that Disney follows how fans consume content and wants to serve those viewers across different platforms.
“We’re trying to think about how can we partner with more brands?” Palmieri said. “We’re taking a hard strategic look at how we are making sure that advertisers understand what the opportunity is, where they can partner with us.”