Staples Center undercover: NCAA tournament sponsors fill in the blanks

The only visible sign for Staples Center is high atop the video board above Wisconsin's players as they practice Wednesday for the West Regionals on Thursday.

The only visible sign for Staples Center is high atop the video board above Wisconsin’s players as they practice Wednesday for the West Regionals on Thursday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The cleansing process began several days in advance, right after a pro wrestling show cleared out of Staples Center.

The arena needed a thorough scrubbing, and not just with brooms and mops.

Armed with yards of black cloth, workers covered every advertisement inside the bowl. Along the concourse, they hung curtains in front of a car display that fans walk by.

There was a method to this March madness.

With the NCAA tournament in town this week — games continue through Saturday — Staples Center became a blank slate for a new set of corporations to move in. Buick replaced Toyota. AT&T took over for Verizon.

This is the business of college basketball. Companies pay the NCAA big money to attach their names to the 21-day championship, and they don’t want to share the spotlight with sponsors that normally inhabit the venues.


No detail is too small — not even the sodas that officials, coaches and media drink courtside. Signs in the hallway outside warn: “Only NCAA cups allowed beyond this point.”

“The sponsors have a lot invested,” said George Belch, a marketing professor at San Diego State. “They want consumers thinking about their brand and nothing else.”

NCAA officials would not disclose how much they receive from the tournament’s 18 corporate partners. But marketing researchers say March Madness ranks with the Super Bowl, Olympics and World Cup as one of the most valuable properties in sports.

Corporations like the tournament because it attracts a cherished demographic.

“The millennials, the younger male audience,” Belch said. “That’s a very difficult market to reach.”

Television commercials are only part of the package. Signage inside the venue often appears on screen, adding up to hours of added exposure over three weeks.

So the NCAA and its business partners are especially concerned about the the court and its immediate surroundings.

A hardwood floor was shipped to Staples Center that has the arena’s name shifted from midcourt to a less conspicuous spot along one baseline. A custom scorer’s table shows only approved advertising.

The usual signage has been stripped from the overhead scoreboard and the “Staples Center” logo above the numbers will not be lighted.

“Obviously, with our sponsors, we need to do as much as we can to elevate their visibility and limit the visibility of any competing companies,” said Ron English, an NCAA tournament director. “We do pay a lot of attention to the finer points.”

None of this is unique to college basketball. Sponsor scrubbing ranks as an unofficial Olympic sport – at a recent Winter Games, officials went so far as to put black tape across the brand name on urinals in venue restrooms.

Things got even dicier at the 2001 NHL All-Star Game, which was held at the Pepsi Center in Denver. The problem was, the league was partnered with Coca-Cola, which insisted its rival’s name not appear anywhere, even on tickets.

Television announcers had to begin the broadcast by welcoming viewers to “the home of the Colorado Avalanche.”

Staples Center executives knew what to expect from an NCAA regional because they hosted one in 2013.

Still, Staples and the NCAA negotiated certain terms of their agreement, with the arena hiding that car display but retaining most of its existing advertising along the concourse.

“It’s a bid process that goes on for several years,” English said. “We put everything in writing.”

Not all issues are sponsorship-related.

Concessions stands are not serving alcohol, and all mentions of San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino have been removed from the building’s public areas “because of the gambling aspect,” said Lee Zeidman, the arena’s president.

Staples Center has also made sure to protect the locker rooms.

With players — including some teenagers — from Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Xavier moving into spaces normally occupied by the Lakers, Clippers and Kings, workers laid cheaper carpeting over the good stuff and either padlocked or blocked doors leading to training rooms and player lounges.

Framed pictures were left on the walls.

“It’s got a lot of history with basketball players,” Badgers forward Frank Kaminsky said of Staples Center. “It’s cool to be in the same building that [NBA greats] played in.”

The only other time of year the arena goes through this sort of scrutiny is during Grammy Awards week. It took workers almost two days to blank out all of that signage.

NCAA officials arrived midweek for a final walk-through. By the start of play Thursday, Staples Center was ready for the television cameras.

“There are a lot of people around the world watching,” English said. “The more we can have things organized, the better.”

Twitter: @LATimesWharton