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Dome sponsors in the dark during March madness

Advertising signs in the ThunderDome will be under wraps or in the dark when the Division I men's college basketball tournament comes to town for first-round action later this month.

"This is not the place to promote corporate sponsorship," said Bernard Muir, assistant director of the tournament for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. "We want to maintain the pure image of the sport."

NCAA officials have given ThunderDome officials the word about what can stay and what has to go for the tournament March 18 and 20.

The ThunderDome's dasher boards _ those temporary walls that now circle the ice rink _ will be draped so advertisers' signs are not visible. That's to make sure that no advertising signs will be seen when television cameras capture the action on the basketball court.

Most of the signs on the scoreboards and along the walls at upper levels of the Dome will be visible to those attending the games, but not illuminated. However, a few signs the NCAA rates as particularly offensive will be covered. The Florida Lottery, Derby Lane and the Tampa Bay Lightning are ineligible players as far as the NCAA is concerned.

"To uphold the image of collegiate athletics, we ask that gambling and professional sports organizations' banners be removed," Muir said.

Beer advertising is also restricted by NCAA rules, but the organization is taking a lenient approach toward the Budweiser and Bud Light signs that decorate the ThunderDome scoreboards.

As long as the signs aren't lit, they don't have to be covered, Muir said. However, beer will not be sold at Dome concessions during the tournament.

The ThunderDome advertisers, which include the Times, are in the Dome by virtue of sponsorship agreements with the Tampa Bay Lightning, which has the rights to Dome signage. Scoreboard sponsorships start at $85,000, but the contracts do not guarantee that signs will be visible at non-hockey events.

"They understand that on certain events we have the right to cover or not illuminate the signs," said Bill Boggs, marketing and promotion manager for the Dome.

The sponsors don't appear to be complaining.

"Our agreements for signage in indoor and outdoor sports arenas are often conditional," Anheuser-Busch Cos. said in a written statement. "Anheuser-Busch has always respected NCAA's position on the matter."

"Anybody selling a product would love to get an audience like that, but we go by whatever rules we find," said Ed George, spokesman for the Florida Lottery. "The majority of the fans for college basketball are well over the age of 18 and probably a good many of them are lottery players, but I guess they're concerned about the message for young athletes who are still in college."

Fortunately for the lottery, the NCAA isn't so picky about other sporting events. The lottery's 1993 marketing coup was a Sports Illustrated centerfold of the Florida State-Miami game with FSU quarterback Charlie Ward in the foreground and the lottery flamingo on the scoreboard in the background.