When a sports league or individual athlete is involved in a public scandal, it’s the corporate sponsors who set the tone.
NCAA men’s basketball is currently mired in an FBI bribery investigation that threatens the entire foundation of the sport. The “Armageddon” began back in September when the FBI arrested 10 men associated with a widespread scheme to pay top high school prospects to commit to certain universities. Since then, new information just keeps coming, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how deep the scheme goes, how many top programs have paid prospects under the table. Yahoo Sports college basketball reporter Pete Thamel says that this “feels like a tipping point more than any other potential tipping point that I’ve seen in the last two decades.”
So, with the March Madness tournament beginning in less than a week, what are the corporate sponsors saying?
The NCAA lists 17 corporate sponsors on its website, and a spokesperson confirms these are the March Madness sponsors: AT&T, Capital One, and Coca-Cola are the top-tier sponsors, called “champions”; the rest are called NCAA “partners”: Buffalo Wild Wings; Buick; Enterprise; Google Cloud; Infiniti; Intel; Lowe’s; Marriott; Nabisco; Northwestern Mutual; Pizza Hut; Reese’s; Unilever; Wendy’s.
Yahoo Finance reached out to all of them to ask for a comment on the ongoing corruption probe. Unsurprisingly, almost all are staying silent. Most did not reply to our request for comment. Buick, Google, and Intel declined to comment.
But Coca-Cola sent a concrete and telling statement: “Anything that detracts from the mission and ideals of the NCAA is of concern to us.”
That may not sound like much, but it is significant if you read between the lines. Coca-Cola, one of the three biggest March Madness sponsors, is expressing concern, and emphasizing that, of course, the current bribery scandal detracts from the mission and ideals of the NCAA. Indeed, this investigation gets to the heart of the NCAA’s controversial definition of “amateurism,” which it uses as the basis to restrict programs from paying college athletes anything beyond tuition.
Of course, the March Madness tournament will tip off as planned without a hitch despite the ongoing investigation, but as more details come to light, expect the scandal to cast a pall over the action. And keep an eye on what the NCAA’s corporate partners do and say as the story progresses, beyond March.
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.