Client: Sandbox.com (Reston, VA)
PR Team: Alan Taylor Communications (New York) and Sandbox's in-house
team (Reston, VA)
Time Frame: February-March 2001
Budget: Under dollars 100,000
March Madness is more than just the nickname for the NCAA Tournament to
crown college basketball's No. 1 team. It's an appropriate way to
describe the cultural phenomenon that has millions vying to predict the
results of all the games.
For the past three years, Sandbox.com, one of the Internet's top
interactive sports sites, has conducted a tournament prediction contest
The site hadn't had much online competition until this year, when big
boys such as ESPN.com and CBSSportsline.com entered the fray with their
high-profile TV relationships and strong ties to the NCAA.
Sandbox.com and Alan Taylor Communications prepared for battle with a
strong game plan.
Prizes are usually the biggest lure to any contest, and Sandbox.com
offered 400 of them, along with dollars 10 million for anyone who picked
the brackets perfectly (at odds of 5.7 billion to one). What's more,
signing up for the contest was free. Tempting, no doubt, but the
competition was offering similar incentives. So itsmadness.com had to
Four months before the tournament, ATC decided to align the contest with
a big name - someone with legendary status and an ever-present place in
the media spotlight - someone like Bobby Knight, who was recently fired
as the head basketball coach at Indiana University. An agreement was
reached quickly; Knight was offered dollars 50,000 and the PR push was
ATC and Sandbox.com focused on building awareness of itsmadness.com by
taking advantage of Knight's natural press-drawing ability and his
incomparable insight into college hoops. The media blitz centered around
the three-day period between the announcement of the tournament pairings
(Sunday, March 11) and the start of the tournament (Thursday, March 16),
when most people would sign up for the contest.
In February, ATC gave Bloomberg Wire Service an exclusive on their
signing of Knight. As the tournament approached, Knight supplied more
and more content on the site. In addition, an extensive online ad
campaign was launched 10 days prior to the tournament. Then, when the
tournament pairings were announced, ATC applied a full-court press on
On Monday, March 12, a VNR was released featuring Knight's involvement
with itsmadness.com, his analysis of the upcoming tournament and
exclusive commentary on the rumors linking him with the Texas Tech
coaching job (which he later accepted).
That same day, an SMT was set up with 12 TV stations, and a conference
call was conducted with 18 prominent print journalists from outlets such
as AP, USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Post. A
chat session allowed fans to speak with Knight.
Itsmadness.com received more than 300 print media placements and more
than 125 million impressions.
Stories ran in USA Today (including a front-page story in the sports
section), The Washington Post, The New York Times, the New York Post, AP
and Bloomberg. In addition to the sports angle, some covered the
technology aspect of the promotion, focusing on the potential success of
such a contest considering the volume of Web traffic prior to major
The televised coverage included more than 290 hits and nearly 69 million
impressions. Knight appeared on CNN's Larry King Live!, Fox & Friends,
ESPN and HBO's On The Record with Bob Costas.
The contest drew 739,281 participants this year, up from 610,750 in
And nearly two-thirds of the sign-ups occurred in the three-day period
prior to the NCAA Tournament.
ATC will handle PR for itsmadness.com again in 2002. Specific PR plans,
including naming a spokesman, will not be finalized until late this
However, Knight tops the list of candidates.