Gimme a (Commercial) Break

It's not possible to separate sports on television from ads on television.
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The

National Collegiate Athletic Association

is holding the biggest event of its calendar year, the men's basketball tournament. In offices everywhere, everyone from the CEO to the office manager is probably in a pool, and Joe Lupo, manager of the sports book at the

Stardust Hotel

in Las Vegas, says "betting on the NCAA Tournament is second only to betting on the

Super Bowl

."

This is why

CBS

(CBS) - Get Report

was willing to spend a reported $1.7 billion for the rights to broadcast the NCAA event over several years.

If you were lucky enough to land tickets to one of the places where the tournament's first four rounds were held, you got to see something bordering on bizarre. I went to see the first two rounds at the

FleetCenter

in Boston -- and the next two at the

Continental Airlines Arena

in East Rutherford, N.J. In each of those venues, the NCAA had taken actions to keep the advertisements out of sight.

At the FleetCenter, backlit signs that ring the court along the facade of the upper deck were not illuminated. Advertisements for everything from

Poland Spring

to

Dunkin' Donuts

remained darkened and one for the

Foxwoods Casinos

in Connecticut was completely covered. At the Continental Airlines Arena, it was more of the same.

It seemed odd, if not completely counterproductive. By darkening signs or covering them, they were even more obvious to spectators.

At the FleetCenter, the illuminated billboards are known as "in-arena panels" and sell for $50,000 apiece for one year, according to Ed Krayer, the director of ad sales at the arena. "They are among the most popular spots we have," he says, adding that the walls that encircle the hockey rink where the Boston Bruins play are slightly more popular "because they are on television all the time, and that really gets you bang for your advertising dollar."

The panels are popular, Krayer continues, "because no matter what event we hold here, your ad is in plain sight."

Except for the NCAA Tournament.

Advertisers who bought the in-arena panels got a bit cheated on the chance for a little bonus national television exposure. Each of the six games held in Boston had a national TV audience. That would be one more game in those two days than the

Bruins

and

Boston Celtics

together have nationally televised all season.

It would be nice if the NCAA could own up to the move as a solid business decision.

On one hand, it seems to have done so. As Krayer says it was explained to him, NCAA officials removed these ads from view to help business partner CBS give network advertisers sole affiliation with the events.

On the other hand, a CBS spokesman says he doesn't know "if that's what

covering the signs is all about." But, he continues, "I would think a sponsor that paid for a spot during one of our telecasts would be eased in knowing that after their spot airs, we don't go back to the venue for a free shot of one of their competitors' signs.

"Whatever started them doing that had nothing to do with us," the spokesman says.

The NCAA's effort to make it sound like business is not a chief concern is preposterous.

"We strive for a noncommercial atmosphere at our events," says Bill Hancock, NCAA director of the men's basketball championships. "We want the collegiate feel in these arenas."

You know what gives me the collegiate feel? The timeouts that come four times each half so that CBS may air its sponsors' ads. Besides, most every college arena where I've gone to watch a basketball game has advertisements.

Krayer had to inform advertisers that their in-arena panels would not be illuminated, but he says "none were really angry about it. We got most of them tickets to the games."

If there is a place where the NCAA can strive to take the moral high ground, it is with the decision to cover the Foxwoods advertisement in FleetCenter. "The association feels that we have a real problem with gambling that hurts our game," Hancock says. And he is on the money, so to speak. College sports has had more than its share of high-profile betting scandals the past few years -- including one in the

Boston College

football program in 1996.

The NCAA claims that amateurism is the backbone of the events it holds. In order to maintain this, it has in place a number of rules that prohibit the way in which a student-athlete may interact with corporations. No student-athlete may have his or her image associated with a product, hence you never see a sneaker commercial with a college player in it.

But when you look at the kind of money the NCAA rakes in by showcasing those athletes on television, it seems like the NCAA is very much about corporate sponsorship.

There's nothing wrong with that -- if they'd just admit it.

Roger Rubin has covered sports in the New York area for 10 years. He is a staff writer for the New York Daily News, covering high school and college sports. He appreciates your feedback at

Gotascoop@aol.com.