Each March they are known by the term “Cinderella story.” College basketball teams that pull off stunning upsets in the NCAA men’s and women’s championships.
This year we have two New Jersey schools on the men’s side who fit the bill. Fairleigh Dickinson—a No. 16 seed that eliminated No. 1 Purdue (only the second time in tournament history that that has happened), and No. 15 Princeton, which has made it to the Sweet Sixteen. On the women’s side, No. 8 Ole Miss ousted No. 1 Stanford in the second round.
These Cinderellas belong to the storied tradition of the underdog in sports, a theme of countless movies and TV shows from Hoosiers to Ted Lasso (the former getting a mention in the first episode of the latter’s new season, btw). Unless we are hardcore fans of Goliath, we love to root for David.
But underdogs pose the same dilemma for sponsors that they do for bettors. It’s a risk to back them, especially when you have to put up the money early. Ask any sponsorship seller, and they will tell you it is much easier to secure partners for winning teams than cellar dwellers.
The questions about whether to support a team that traditionally doesn’t have much success, or to get on board with an athlete early on before he or she has established their track record, are some of the more interesting questions facing sports marketers.
In geographically based pro sports and college athletics, those sponsorship decisions are somewhat easier. For the most part, perennially losing teams still have passionate fan bases that sponsors and partners can connect with and earn loyalty from. But they come without the extra benefits and additional promotional platforms of consistently sold-out venues, higher-rated broadcasts and exciting playoff runs that attract the attention of casual fans and even nonfans.
Lacking those, sponsors of non-winning teams must be laser focused on creating compelling activation programs. If they are successful in building relationships with fans—and if their sponsorship fee reflects the lack of additional exposure and engagement that would come with winning—when the breakthrough season comes, they will be there to reap the rewards at a low opportunity cost for the years of being in the basement.
In the end, looking at sponsorship through the underdog lens at least offers a counterargument to those who assert that team partnerships are always more valuable than league or sanctioning body deals, on the grounds that passion and loyalty lie more with teams and players than organizations.
Although that may be true, in the case of this year’s March Madness Cinderellas, it is the NCAA corporate champions and partners that could, if they choose, capitalize on the buzz around the historic success of the bracket busters.
Sports business, like sports itself, does not guarantee anyone a win, but it too creates opportunities for unexpected results to those who can seize the moment.