23 March 2009

Method behind the Madness

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Division One Men's Basketball Tournament has emerged over the past twenty years as the most prominent multi-day sporting event in the United States. Granted, it lacks the all-consuming focus of a single day as does the preeminent athletic competition, the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, in some aspects, it draws in spectators in ways that the Super Bowl and other highly popular events lack.

First of all, the appeal of the underdog comes to the forefront. How is it that thousands of fans attending the games and millions watching them on television become enamored with lowly seeded teams from relatively unknown programs? Invariably, perhaps instinctively, those not affiliated with the higher seeded squad openly cheer for the underdog, the level of support inversely commensurate with how far down in the seedings the underdog is located. Does this appeal find its roots in the era when Americans were a fledgling yet disrespected country facing dominant and disdaining super-powers? Can this phenomenon be traced to a Judeo-Christian influence of the tale of the protagonist, a perceived hopelessly overmatched David versus the antagonist, an overwhelming favorite Goliath? Is this a manifestation of class warfare leading to antipathy toward the perceived pomposity of perennial powers? Attendees at these venues and public locations where the games can be viewed will commonly hear statements along the lines of this: "I can't stand Blueblood University with its fifteen thousand seat arena and millions of dollars in apparel sales. I hope Podunk State beats those arrogant (expletive)s!"

Secondly, March Madness has morphed into an excuse to dabble in gambling. Bracket pools among co-workers have developed into a tradition on par with the nondescript "holiday" party in December or monthly birthday cakes for employees. People who would only ever enter a casino to partake in the buffets eagerly fill out bracket sheets, even if they rarely, if ever, watch college basketball games during the regular season. Uninterested for most of the season, some Americans suddenly develop an affinity for teams based on curious qualities as "cute mascot", "pretty color scheme" or "location in a loved or detested state".

Additionally, Americans love drama filled immediacy and pressure. The "win or leave" format of the tournament heightens the tension among the players, coaches and fans. The NCAA Tournament can be contrasted with the National Basketball Association's seven games playoff series in which a prohibitively favored team can sleepwalk through three games yet still manage to win the series to advance to the next round. The collegiate squads possess no such luxury. A highly acclaimed team might be unable to focus on a match played at the hour when the players typically have breakfast or are asleep. A dominant, towering center could spend a significant portion of the game on the bench after an early accumulation of fouls. A leading scorer with consistent accuracy might fall into an inexplicable slump. A team of outstanding free throw shooters can fire nothing but bricks and air-balls. With such occurrences, teams with less experience, depth, height and accuracy can and do pull off upsets. These allow the underdogs to advance while the higher seeds ponder what went awry.

Foreigners have frequently stated words to the effect that what Americans do best is overdo everything. The arrangement of the NCAA Tournament lends itself to that stereotype. For the initial days of the tournament, on Thursday and Friday, four sites host four games each. The gluttony of games commences at midday, local time of the venue, and concludes at or near midnight. Even the second round, with half the number of games, extends from noon to well into prime time viewing hours in most of the country. After a respite of three days, concurrent double-headers take place in the evenings of the following Thursday and Friday. Nation-wide twin billings on the next two days determine the Final Four. Of course, a five day lag until the next round happens to allow time for another time-honored American tradition: media overexposure of the participants.

The Madness concludes with one team hoisting a trophy after proving itself as the undisputed national champions. Considering the widespread interest in this playoff among the American people, one might contemplate another mystery: Why is there no similar resolution to the Division 1-A college football season?

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