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Getting in The Game

College basketball fans are not the only ones going mad this March. Advertisers are too.

About 130 million people at one time or another tuned into the two-and-a-half week long NCAA basketball tournament known as March Madness. The championship game alone drew 40.3 million TV viewers.

With those types of numbers, it's no surprise that large companies like General Motors, AT&T and Coca-Colaare not only committing major advertising dollars to the event, but basing whole campaigns on March Madness.

"In an era when there are fewer big TV events," says Karen Albritton, president of Capstrat, a strategic communications firm, "You're reaching an upscale audience and they are very engaged."

The big three TV advertisers (AT&T, Coca-Cola and GM) during the tournament are also sponsors of the event. According to Jon Swallen, head of research at TNS Media Intelligence, not only do the companies pay a fee to use the organization's logo, they are required to buy advertising time on CBS during the televised games.

TNS projects that this year TV ad sales will reach $545 million for CBS , making it largest sporting event behind pro football in terms of TV ad revenue.

Besides television ads, the three leading advertisers will also support CBSSports.comwhich for the first time will stream the entire tournament (except one game) online and also will offer fans on - demand playback of the games. The video player on CBSSports.com will feature AT&T, Coca-Cola and GM's logos prominently above the player. CBSSports.com says it expects to make more than $21 million from advertising on its online player.

Among fans, "there is a lot of passion" and excitement surrounding the tournament, says Albritton, and advertisers hope to direct some of the excitement to their brands by building campaigns around the event in other ways than just television ads.

Companies have been developing special Web sites and contests "which can be a way to build a database of consumers and customers, and do database marketing against them in the future" says Jon Swallen of TNS.

GM , for example, will be introducing its new Pontiac G8 by offering a $100,000 scholarship to one of the NCCA schools and giving away a new G8 and a trip to the Final Four round of games for one fan and seven friends. Coca-Cola , which is focusing on promoting its Coke Zero brand, has launched bracketomatic.com where fans can get a little help filling out their brackets.

Meanwhile, AT&T will be keeping its wireless customers busy with access to video highlights, news stories, scores and NCAA trivia. AT&T's involvement stems from what AT&T's senior manager of national sponsorships Jamie Kerr says are "very passionate" fans that "are always seeking information from a variety of sources."

Other companies are tapping into that passion by offering fans more of a March Madness experience.

Papa John's Pizza, the "official" delivery pizza of the NCAA, launched papaspanfan.com, creating a sense of a community where fans can upload photos from the games, order pizza and enter a contest.

Hyatt Place, a brand of hotels targeted at business travelers owned by Hyatt, introduced a March Basketball Package that allows fans to rent a hotel room that includes a 42-inch HDTV, a one-day DIRECTV subscription and snacks.

Leveraging their brands and associating them with March Madness, provides a greater investment then other major events because of its extended finale.

"It's not just one day," adds AT&T's Kerr, "it's two weeks of excitement."

Joseph Pisani is a news associate at CNBC.com. He can be reached at joseph.pisani@nbcuni.com.

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