CBS and Turner currently pay the NCAA about $800 million a year to broadcast the NCAA tournament, and that figure will spike to more than a billion beginning in 2024. It’s a great deal: Last year, March Madness generated $1.24 billion in advertising revenue for CBS and Turner. That’s about $200 million more than the 2016 NBA playoffs generated, despite the playoffs lasting almost twice as long and, uh, featuring athletes who receive money for playing.
With the Super Bowl, advertisers are paying millions to make one big splash that will leave us talking for days or years. With the NCAA tournament, they’re paying for the right to burrow into our brains. If you want, you can watch 12 hours of tournament basketball for each of the first four days, five hours a day for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, five more for the Final Four, and let’s say an additional three for the championship game. That’s 76 hours of television in three weeks, all on the same few channels.
Advertisers know this, so they make March Madness–specific ads. Although, as The New York Times noted, they can’t show the players. Instead, the ads show things that are March Madness–adjacent: announcer Grant Hill wearing some pizza shoes, some mascots using a fridge. In Viagra ads made without NCAA licensing, a pretty lady and her faceless, grizzled companion return home wearing clothing with pictures of basketballs.
Over the course of these three weeks, each one of these ads will break my brain. First, I become aware of every single detail of them; then I grow to despise every detail of them; then, sometimes, it circles around and I actually begin to yearn to hear them again. Sunday, during the waning hours of the round of 32, my girlfriend walked into the room and alerted me to the fact that I was screaming the lyrics to Shaquille O’Neal’s rap about Oreos.
Here are the six ads of March Madness most likely to ruin my life. They are ranked in order of how hostile I am toward them: The ones at the top I have begun to associate with; the ones at the bottom cause me existential angst.
1. Shaq Raps About Cookies
Shaq was never a technically gifted rapper, but he did go platinum and earn the respect of many in the hip-hop industry. While plenty of athletes who wanted to rap mumbled lyrics somebody else wrote for them, rappers who worked with Shaq noted the care he took in studying how to best deliver his lines.
Fast-forward to 2017. He’s yelling out OREO! I LOVE THESE MILK AND COOKIES, and I believe him.
I want to love anything as much as he loves those milk and cookies.
2. The Tragedy of Buffalo Wild Wings
You’ve seen Buffalo Wild Wings ads before. The game is going into overtime! Hooray! Everybody gets to stay at Buffalo Wild Wings! But wait — what about all those jersey-wearing fans in the Buffalo Wild Wings who wanted their team to win? Aren’t they extremely upset that their players were attacked by sprinklers on the most pivotal play of the game? No? They’d rather hang out at B-Dubs for 15 more minutes than see their favorite sports team win?
Anyway, there has long been a dark, unexplored side to these ads. Finally, Buffalo Wild Wings has shown us the unfortunate souls affected by the B-Dubs tragic sports magic.
Two men ask their servers to take Louisville’s no. 7 out of the game. This is the first time I can recall an actual team being used in a Buffalo Wild Wings ad — never mind that uniform regulations prevent college basketball players from wearing no. 7, just go with it. It’s also the first time I can recall the fans doing something not designed to prolong a game, but to hurt the prospects of another team. Maybe these guys picked against Louisville in their brackets, maybe they’re Kentucky fans, maybe they bet heavily against Louisville. Whatever the reason, they want the Cardinals to lose, so they asked their server to take a player out of the game, and he was transported to their B-Dubs.
In every previous Buffalo Wild Wings ad, there was an athlete devastated by a restaurant chain modifying a sporting event for the amusement of its patrons. But the commercials never showed it. Here we see the bug-eyed terror of the player whose career has been devastated for the sake of two guys drinking $4 Coors Lights. They find it awkward, but they order more wings.
3. Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, and Spike Lee Hang Out
This ad campaign has gone on for a few years. Charles Barkley once managed to drive his pals to In the Annapolis without either of his friends noticing they were driving toward Maryland instead of Indiana.
I’m not that bothered by this year’s ads, because they have Barkley say much funnier things than Barkley says when he’s given free rein to talk on Inside the NBA: “Darn you, Jim Nantz, with your rugged good looks and velvety voice!” Charles eating chips out of his hoodie and saying, “There’s a thin line between madness and genius”? Gold.
4. Reggie Miller’s House of Horrors
Does he live with these basketball figures intentionally? Are they squatting? Are they real? He never directly interacts with them, only with his Amazon Echo. Is his house haunted? Or are these figments of his imagination?
Either way, these ads are awful, because Reggie Miller sings Seal in them:
I’ll never buy an Echo, because I don’t want a device produced by a retail corporation listening to me all the time. That said, I pity the Echo that has to listen to Reggie Miller all day. I can barely make it through the games he announces on TV.
5. The Dan Band
Perhaps you noticed the lounge singer who curses while singing at weddings in Vince Vaughn movies. His name is Dan Finnerty, and his band is the Dan Band, and it’s honestly a funny gag. It occupies your thoughts for 11 seconds for early-movie scenes that don’t have a ton of humor in them while they set up the actual funny things. It’s like wallpaper that happens to be hilarious.
Some phone company decided it would be good to have him for March Madness ads. Two problems:
1. There is nothing else going on in these ads. Dan is the A-plot. If the Dan Band is funny wallpaper, this is a close-up of wallpaper.
2. He can’t curse or sing about sex in these ads, so he’s just singing about wireless plans with references to basketball.
Watching this ad once would irritate me. Watching it 700 times over three weeks makes me want to fight Dan, who seems like a perfectly nice guy.
6. THIS FREAKING APPLE AD WITH AN IPHONE DING IN THE MIDDLE OF IT
Unlike all the other ones, this ad is not March Madness–themed. It merely debuted right around the start of March Madness.
However, it is worse than any unlicensed mascot, or Charles Barkley joke, or even anything Reggie Miller could do. Because about 40 seconds into the ad, one of the characters receives a text, and the ad actually plays the noise your iPhone makes if you receive a text.
Every single time this ad comes on TV, I check my phone to see if I have received a text. It feels like it has happened 150 times, and it will happen 400 more in the next week and a half, and I will not learn. It’s like if I jangled my dog’s leash at her and then didn’t take her out.
This ad would be perfectly fine without the iPhone ding. Instead, the person who made the commercial chose to disappoint millions of Apple users across the country over and over again. It makes me so mad I might briefly consider buying a Droid before spending another $800 on an iPhone when my current one breaks.