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AT&T is banking on the Final Four

DALLAS—Marketing opportunities don’t come any bigger for AT&T Inc. than this year’s Final Four of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The company is a longtime sponsor of the NCAA and one of its few “corporate champions,” the highest level of support. The games will be played today and Monday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, a quick drive from AT&T headquarters in downtown Dallas.

“It’s a convergence of events that I don’t think has ever happened before,” said Vance Overbey, the executive responsible for strategic development of the company’s on-air sponsorships, including March Madness. “It’s pretty cool.”

Last year’s Final Four was played in Atlanta, home of the Coca–Cola Co., another NCAA corporate champion. But the games were played in the Georgia Dome. Coke didn’t benefit by having its name on the stadium, too.

The Final Four is one of the premier sporting events in the country, and AT&T plans to take full advantage of the opportunity, including on its home turf.

Out-of-town fans arriving at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Dallas Love Field are being welcomed by AT&T signs that say, “Now Arriving Hopes Dreams Destiny ”

Billboards and ads wrapping buses and trains tout the telecom giant’s wireless capability: “Nothing But Network.” AT&T is the exclusive wireless partner of the NCAA.

The company is presenting live music events and hosting Fan Zones where people can get coaches’ autographs or recharge their wireless devices as well as themselves. Last year, more than 50,000 attended the AT&T Block Party in Atlanta.

The side of one midrise downtown Dallas building features a giant “wallscape.” In one corner, a player hangs from the rim after a slam dunk. Several floors below, in the parking lot, a huge basketball sits atop a crushed car.

“AT&T Welcomes the Final Four to Our Hometown,” the copy says.

The company is bolstering Wi-Fi hot spots and wireless systems in some areas, including 16 new antennas under the basketball floor at the stadium.

Coupled with a full-court press on social media, AT&T aims to use technology to create new experiences and increase fan interaction. Take that wallscape. People can share photos of it on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“That’s the hope,” Overbey said.

How much does all this cost?

That’s a question AT&T doesn’t answer. One consulting firm, IEG in Chicago, has estimated that the company spends nearly $200 million a year on North American sponsorships. According to Street & Smith’s Sports Business, the company’s corporate champion deal runs “eight figures” annually. It includes all 89 of the NCAA’s sports championships.

One solid number is AT&T’s advertising expense: $3.26 billion in 2013, up more than 12 percent from 2012, according to the company’s financial reports. Closer to home, AT&T’s naming rights agreement with the Dallas Cowboys for the stadium could approach $20 million a year, according to some estimates.

With nearly $130 billion in annual revenue, AT&T is one of the biggest companies in the world and has one of the most valuable brands. It doesn’t hesitate to spend to support that brand. Television ads for AT&T are running throughout the tournament.

One ad is for AT&T’s U-verse television and Internet service. It features Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and retired NBA stars David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo and Michael Finley. A U-verse app allows fans to watch live coverage of the tournament on their mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. That’s exactly what Cuban does in the ad, both while answering his doorbell and then at the end when the tall players block his view of the main TV set.

Abhijit Biswas, a marketing professor at the University of Texas–Dallas, said AT&T’s sponsorship of the NCAA tournament appeals to the sweet spot of its customer base: younger people who grew up with the Internet. They are active in social media and comfortable simultaneously interacting with multiple screens—TV, computer, pad, phone.