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Ladder-maker puts NCAA tournament nets within reach

Michael Sanserino, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette • Mar 19, 2014 at 7:00 PM

PITTSBURGH (MCT) – At the end of March Madness, one team will cut down the nets.

But before it can do that, it will have to outlast the other 67 teams in the NCAA tournament, then climb a Werner ladder to get there.

Of all the sponsorships that are part of the NCAA basketball tournament, a ladder might be among the most unusual. The NCAA sells corporate sponsorships worth $50,000 to $35 million annually to soda companies, restaurant chains, banks, home improvement companies, car companies and almost anyone else willing to pay.

For the past seven years, that has included Werner Ladders, whose U.S. headquarters are in Greenville, Pa., about an hour and a half north of Pittsburgh. Werner is the "Official Ladder of the NCAA Basketball Championship."

Any time a men's or women's college basketball team advances to the Final Four or wins the NCAA tournament, its joyful players will stand on a Werner ladder with the company's oblong logo tattooed on it. And that moment is relayed to millions of viewers watching on TV and millions more who will see images in newspapers, magazines and on the Internet.

"When that coach or player is climbing that ladder, all of a sudden that media gets picked up everywhere," said Scott Morgan, president of Pittsburgh advertising firm Brunner, which has helped Werner with its campaigns. "When you start to calculate that value, and the fact there is tremendous credibility to that appearing in an editorial environment, we call that 'earned media.' The earned media becomes more valuable than the paid media."

He still fondly remembers when University of Kentucky coach John Calipari, a former high-school classmate of Morgan's at Moon High School, stood atop a Werner ladder to cut down the nets after leading the Wildcats to a national championship in 2012.

The company's sponsorship agreement does not require CBS to show the Werner logo, so it is not quite like the product placements that have become a staple of TV shows and movies.

Chris Filardi, Werner's vice president of marketing, said the company has supplied ladders to sports arenas for decades. Only after seeing its ladder used time and time again to cut down the nets _ a tradition to celebrate momentous victories in basketball _ did it reach out to the NCAA to try to capitalize.

"March Madness is an extremely valuable property to be associated with because of the numbers it touches," said Mike Fetchko, president and managing director of ISM/USA, a sports marketing firm in Pittsburgh, and co-director of Point Park University's center for sports media and marketing.

In 2013, the NCAA championship game drew 23 million viewers, more than any professional sports championship except for the Super Bowl. It also generated 3.3 million tweets with a total of 16 million for the entire tournament, which spans three weeks.

"I think it's larger, stronger and more valuable than any other collegiate property, and that takes into account the BCS (college football) championship game," Fetchko said. "It surpasses the bowl games."

As part of the agreement between Werner, a privately held company with international headquarters in Switzerland, and the NCAA, the ladder company supplies tournament arenas with 9-foot ladders _ a product that is not even available to U.S. consumers. The approximately 3-meter ladder is sold exclusively in Europe, Filardi said.

But it's the brand, not the specific product, that Werner is selling with the partnership.

Filardi declined to say how much Werner spends as part of its partnership, only to say it is the company's "most significant investment of all the initiatives we do for our brand."

In 2006, the last year the company was public, Werner was the largest manufacturer and distributor of ladders and climbing products in the United States, according to SEC filings.

Since becoming partners with NCAA, Werner has enhanced its visibility among college basketball fans, creating partnerships with a handful of ESPN and CBS radio shows. The company sponsors the "Werner Ladder Bracket Challenge" in conjunction with ESPN's "Mike and Mike in the Morning," one of the country's top-rated sports radio programs.

Werner also has a partnership with the National Association of Basketball Coaches and donates to scholarship funds for the Final Four participants.

For this year's tournament, Werner will air a series of commercials, including a pair of TV spots and a radio commercial produced by Brunner featuring some of the ladder company's new products. Werner hired the ad agency a couple years ago to work on branding, Morgan said.

Werner also will run a commercial featuring Michigan State University basketball coach Tom Izzo, who climbs to the top of the company's platform ladder and dances around. That commercial was produced by another advertising firm.

"From a media standpoint, the tourney has done nothing but grow in the last several years," Filardi said. "We've obviously benefitted from the visibility of that."

The company recently launched a "Rise Above the Rest" social media campaign and accompanying sweepstakes at http://riseabove.wernerco.com. The winner will earn a replica NCAA championship ladder.

The advertising campaign has even converted Filardi into an avid watcher of the NCAA tournament. He calls himself a "die-hard" college football fan, but as a Penn State graduate, he never really considered himself a college basketball fan.

"I am now," he said.

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