Originally written: March 28, 2008.
Many people have written about their love for this annual event. But sadly they miss the heart of the matter usually making lists specific to that season so they can re-write the very same piece the next year and still come off as relevant. Lame. Let’s really look at what makes this one of the world’s most exciting sporting events.
It is does not discriminate. There is no elitism involved here at any level. The NCAA tournament does not discriminate based upon the size of the school, the conference, or the fan. All are welcome, and for the teams it is fair because every team has to earn their way in via the same methods. The entry methods are level, win your conference tournament or be one of the best thirty some odd schools that did not win their conference tournament. Yes, someone always gets left out, but you cannot accept everyone or the beauty of having to earn it is lost. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and 64 is the perfect number. The tournament also gives the teams a chance to build their reputation and move their way up the pecking order from Cinderella to a top 25 school. Prime example of this is Gonzaga. 10 years ago they were Cinderella, now they are a perennial top 25 school that will get an at-large bid if they lose their conference tournament. Not only that but they are bringing their conference up with them. St Mary’s College was able to use Gonzaga’s success to earn their own at-large bid. All because Gonzaga took their Cinderella role and showed repeatedly that they can play at a top 25 level.
For the fans this event is equally as open. It does not matter if you watched every game of every Big Monday or if you have trouble spelling ESPN, you are welcome to fill out a bracket and play along. The first timer, the one that usually wins the pool, is welcome with open arms for their picks are just as likely to lose as the stat junky’s is. Think about that, hours and hours of pouring over shooting percentages, free throw percentages, rebounding statistics can all be worth the same as a brief glimpse at a team’s uniform. That is a level playing field. But it also makes things fun. It gives people a reason to talk with people they would never otherwise talk to. It brings offices, schools, and families closer together. Now a big part of the reason for this is the clean and simple to understand format. 64 teams, with brackets set in stone. No ifs, no re-seeding, no tie-breakers, no if necessary’s. If team A wins they play the winner of the Team B / Team C game. Anyone can follow along. Other events try but they just can’t get out of their own way and then other people get involved and make things even more complicated. Look at the NFL Playoffs, try following along and explaining it to a 10 year old with no interest in sports. Good luck. Then add on the silly side bets on the Super Bowl and all openness has been removed. While back at our beloved March Madness, even the gamblers latch onto the simplicity because that’s their best access to money. Because things are so level and fair they don’t need point spreads, over/unders, or odds to win. Those exist if you are hard-core but if you just want to play all it takes is $5 and a bracket cut from the newspaper. Those who want to bet $0 are as welcomed as those who want to bet the farm. When even bookies are open to all bets, you have something really special.
It is Rebellious. If the NCAA Tournament were run by the NBA how long would it take to play all 63 games? That’s right, 2 months, at least. The NCAA gets it done in 3 weeks. TV means nothing to them, yet their tournament is still worth a billion dollars. Even though they do things so very wrong when it comes to maximizing a TV audience.
They play games during office hours! No your boss doesn’t care; he’s watching the games online as well. But TV cares. What other sporting event at this level occurs while 90% of the people who care are at work or school? NONE! It doesn’t happen. It’s a mortal sin in the TV world. The President doesn’t make an address to the nation before 8pm eastern unless he absolutely has to, and even then he’ll drop the bombs first then tell us in primetime. But the NCAA tournament starts at noon on a Thursday, every year. That’s 9am on the west coast. The only other sporting event that even comes close to pulling a stunt like this is MLB where one team plays one game before noon on a weekday. The Boston Red Sox play a home game starting at 10am on Patriot’s day, a local holiday. So that’s close, it’s a Monday, it is morning. But it’s not a national interest game, it’s only one game, it only happens once a year, and technically it is a holiday. The NCAA tournament doesn’t just do one game at noon, it does 3. That’s not enough; thumbing its nose at the rules again they do the same thing on Friday. Not only that but they get the games over with in a timely fashion. The games end not too long after midnight and definitely before 1am. This allows those deserving, or sneaky school children the chance to watch many more of the games. Not only that, but the NCAA has the audacity to play several games at once, often times up to four games! WOW! Four games being played simultaneously. Now way would any other sport do that in the playoff to decide its champion? The NHL is about the only one that even comes close, but if they had a truly national fanbase we all know they’d end that practice real quick. Then to top it all off, they dare to give their fans 3 full days off between games. That’s three perfectly good TV days that they throw away. Who needs Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday anyway? Let the people work on those days to make up for the two we took from their jobs. What other event would allow it to walk away from our short attention span 24 hour news cycle American minds for three full days and expect us to be able to get excited again? No one has the cajones to do that, except the NCAA. So let’s put this together: they cram 16 games into a 12 hour slot that starts at noon, then they do it again the very next day, then after two more days of excitement they take a 3 day break. This must be where term March Madness came from, one of the TV executives hearing of this schedule and saying, “THAT’S MADNESS!”
It is the emotions, stupid! Let’s face it, no other sporting event grabs our hearts like this one. It’s not just about our favorite teams, or the favorite to win, or the Cinderella, it’s about all of that and more. There’s overtime, there are buzzerbeaters, and there are dominant performances that shock us. With 63 games you get to taste everything that can happen. All of the things we love get a chance to shine on a stage that matters for both us as fans and for the kids involved. The emotion makes this work. We don’t mind seeing one of the players cry after either a victory or a defeat because they are still kids and we do feel their pain and their joy. We are as emotionally vested as they are because it is a “one and done” format. The star player fouling out hurts us as much as him, even if we are rooting against his team. We can cheer for Cinderella even if we picked the team they beat to win it all. We allow our allegiances to blow in the wind as our brackets fall apart, because there is always another favorite, another Cinderella, or another match-up of equals. The story goes on and our interest doesn’t fade. In most other sporting events, no matter how much we may love “the game”, or “the league”, or “the players”, we lose interest once our team is gone. We care about all 63 games. Every person that fills out a bracket will want to know the result of every single game. In other sports there are flat out games, series, and match-ups that we just don’t give a damn about and we ignore them. Here we stay and watch no matter what happens. Just because Duke is eliminated does not mean Duke fans have turned off the tournament. No, they stay and watch, picking other teams to root for, or they just enjoy the game for what it is. People don’t get upset if the Championship game has a crappy match-up, they don’t care if one team doesn’t deserve to be there.
By the time that Monday night rolls around we are so vested that we leave the BS behind. We got on this train knowing the rules and being committed to the journey. We may hate, we may love, but we don’t judge. We just watch and enjoy. Then when it’s over, there is no second guessing. No questioning, no saying, “Well if they had to play so-and-so in the Sweet 16 they never would have won.” No unlike every other sporting event known to mankind we accept the outcome as pure, fair, and just.
These are what make this tournament the event it is. These are the things that other sports need to look at and improve if they want to grow a loyal fanbase. It’s not perfect, and in fact its flaws make us love it more. But it works, and every year we come back for more.