March Madness doesn't start until March 13, but execs at CBS and Turner are amping up for America's biggest and loudest rite of spring -- the three-week, 67-game orgy of NCAA basketball championship games.
This year, if CBS and Turner have their way, the buzzword will be "brackets."
Also read: NCAA Tourney Scores Best Ratings in 17 Years
The networks are launching a major marketing blitz -- called "Brackets Everywhere" -- which will feature celebs Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Conan O'Brien, Anderson Cooper and others.
The spots -- which will feature a fashion designer who decides the bracket design is the next big trend -- will run on TBS, CBS, TNT and TruTV, as well as CNN, HLN, Airport Network, CBS Outernet Partners and across Turner Digital, which includes SI.com and NCAA.com.
As part of the push, Turner and CBS will put up brackets that will stand as large as 50 feet by 32 feet in major markets New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. They'll be rolled out at CNN Center in Atlanta on March 6, Hollywood & Highland Center in Los Angeles on March 7 (below), and at Grand Central Terminal in New York on March 12.
For the uninitiated, "brackets" are diagrams breaking down the 64-team tournament's matchups. The forms can be filled out with an individual's choices of teams to advance and then followed through the tourney.
And they're commonplace in most offices around America. March Madness costs employers about $190 million a year in lost productivity, according to outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
And the FBI estimated $2.5 billion was bet illegally on office pools and the games last year.
"You may not be a huge basketball fan," Christina Miller, senior VP of sports marketing and strategy at Turner told TheWrap, "but your parents may have been, or your husband is, or the college you attended may be in the tourney. Nostalgia factors in."
Making the tourney a shared experience is critical, Miller said.
"The trick is attracting those casual fans and making the tourney a participatory experience for them," she said. "And that's where 'Brackets Everywhere' comes in."
Lest anyone forget amid the rush of buzzer-beaters, busted brackets and lost office productivity also known as "The Big Dance," it's big business.
By the time this year's tourney culminates in New Orleans with the Final Four on March 31 and the championship game on April 2, an estimated $12 billion in revenue will be generated through ticket sales, licensing rights, merchandise, hotel and restaurant income, ad sales and more.
CBS and Turner get it. They paid $10.8 billion in 2010 for shared rights to the championship tourney through 2025.
The investment paid off last year, the first under the new deal. The 2011 event averaged 10.2 million viewers, up 7% from 2010 on CBS alone, making it the most-watched NCAA tournament since 2005. Viewers' median age also dropped three years, to 46, Turner said.
The games will be broadcast on four networks: CBS and Turner's TBS, TNT and TruTV.
"Last year it was about education," Miller said. "We wanted to make sure that fans knew every game was going to be available to them live, either on one of our channels, on CBS, or online. This year it's about engagement."
CBS and the NCAA used the tournament to push into online streaming back in 2003, when they launched March Madness on Demand. It required a subscription, with an average price of $15, for the first three years.
In 2006, the networks converted to a free, ad-supported service. Last year, fans watched 13.7 million hours of streaming video online and through mobile devices, a 17% increase from 2010.
"It's about creating an immersive experience," Miller said. "When you wake up in the morning, whether you go to a bunch of new sites or turn on the radio or the TV, we want to be there."
Under a new plan called March Madness Live, games aired on CBS will remain free through the network's website. And most viewers -- about 77 million of the roughly 92 million cable subscribers who get TNT and TBS -- will be able to watch games on those channels online at no cost.
This year, however, authentication -- proving you subscribe to a provider that offers the service -- will be required. Or fans can pay $3.99 to see all of the games online, on tablets or via mobile devices.
Turner Sports senior vice president Matthew Hong said the company considered using authentication last year but wanted to wait until people adjusted to the new TV setup. He acknowledged that some fans may opt to pay the $3.99 rather than "authenticate."
"Obviously, a lot of thought and market research went into that price point," Hong told the Associated Press. "We wanted to make it a fair price and for people to get value at that price."
The live NCAA tournament coverage has been a critical driver for Turner, where programming is mostly syndicated. March Madness also has served as a way for Turner to drive new viewers to its TruTV, which will feature four first-round matchups.
"Sports are an expensive but effective way to quickly improve ratings," Janney Capital Markets analyst Tony Wible told AdAge. "As Turner starts renewing affiliates the NCAA helps it become a must-have channel, and that's where this investment will pay off."