Insurers Keen on NCAA’s Basket-Full of Opportunities

April 8, 2008

The University of Kansas men’s basketball team may have been the big winner at last night’s NCAA championship — but when it comes to the NCAA’s bonanza of sponsorship benefits from basketball and other sports, some insurers say they’re big winners, too.

After all, quite a few insurers’ names have been bounced around like basketballs on TV lately, and it’s not by accident; it’s a high profile benefit of some of the industry’s major players having set their sights on the NCAA college basketball tournament as a major outlet for their advertising.

But the push by insurers – big names like State Farm and The Hartford – has less to do about basketball, and more to do about the high degree of access the NCAA’s 88 annual tournaments give these companies to giant swaths of the country, said Larry DeGaris, a marketing professor at the University of Indianapolis.

“What sports gives you is a marketing platform with a lot of interactive potential,” said DeGaris, a Ph.D in Sports Sociology. “It’s not only an avenue with a lot of media to build a brand and advertise, you use sports to generate participation.” Participation means the ability to build qualified leads through contests, interactive media and other corporate sponsorship-linked events – all big mainstays of the college sports marketing arena.

“Sports allow you to do that, and the insurance industry is very active in sports for that big reason,” he said.

Another major factor that makes college sports tournaments so attractive is that they rotate locations every year, exposing whole new sections of the country to branding and advertising campaigns that traditional media is less successful at reaching, DeGaris said. Still another reason: the opportunities the tournaments offer for corporate hospitality programs, which the NCAA launched several years ago.

Taken together, college sports sponsorship packages have created significant opportunities for insurers that are trying to establish their name-brands with college-age customers – and with their alumni-aged parents and friends, according to DeGaris.

It’s one of the main reasons a company like The Hartford Financial Services Group has sought out the NCAA as an advertising partner. The company used the March tournament as a chance to launch an integrated marketing campaign that includes commercials, print advertising, event marketing and other outreach efforts coordinated with March Madness.

The Hartford has even drafted infamously spirited college basketball analyst Dick Vitale to act as a pitchman for the company’s Playbook for Life. The Playbook is part a three-year-old program designed to educate students on campuses nationwide about financial literacy and planning; it’s also a handy way to get the copmany’s name in front of young adults with yet-unformed brand loyalties, marketing experts might say.

“From a media perspective, college sports draw a tremendous audience but also enable to forge a strategic partnership with NCAA that goes far beyond this tournament and commercials,” said Connie Weaver, senior vice president for marketing and communications at The Hartford. “We think of it as 360-degree marketing where we really think about a whole range of touch points that we could go to and engage our people and most important clients – particularly agents – and support a number of our philanthropic” efforts.

These advertising and branding efforts can boost agents’ business, said Michael Johnson, vice president for brand management and advertising for The Hartford. “It helps (agents) to sell to their clients.” “We are a multiline insurance provider so from auto to homeowners to small business to life insurance, that breadth and depth can help brokers as we build awareness,” he said.

Tournament and college sports sponsorship provide “hospitality and relationship building that are inherently part of the NCAA partnership.” Insurers’ sponsorships of college sports – and basketball, in particular – extend even to naming rights for college stadiums.

In Hartford, for instance, the former Hartford Civic Center is now known as the XL Center, after XL Capital bought the naming rights to the small stadium known chiefly as the home base of the wildly successful – and popular – UConn men’s and women’s basketball teams.

XL’s professional liability unit is based just up the street from the center, and within a few miles of the headquarters or major sites for insurance and financial services companies including Aetna, The Hartford, ING, Cigna, Travelers and others.

Having a connection with a nationally known team was viewed by the company as a good reason to partner with the stadium.

“XL Insurance has a significant office presence and history in Hartford where many businesses and their insurance brokers come to conduct business,” said John Glancy, chief underwriting officer of XL Insurance’s professional liability unit.

“This is the direction that things are headed in,” said marketing professor DeGaris. “These are the types of things that put companies in the ball game. They carry to these audiences a relationship and a trusted brand and the NCAA has made huge advancements in its corporate partnerships where these are not just names tacked to the sides of buildings.”

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