Imagine all of the best teams in your favorite sport pitted against each other in a bracket-style, single-elimination tournament to determine one, true champion. Sounds awesome, right? The NCAA College Basketball Tournament, known most popularly as “March Madness,” brings this idea to life and it is a sporting spectacle.
“March Madness” is a 68-team, single-elimination tournament that determines the NCAA Basketball Champion. While college basketball is already a relatively popular sport in America (in terms of television viewership), the sport observes an explosion of popularity in the month of March. A good example of this is demonstrated by comparing the TV viewership of a regular-season game before March and a post-season game in the heat of “March Madness.” On February 1st, 2013, Duke played Syracuse on ESPN and drew 4.75 million viewers (U.S.). At the time, Duke and Syracuse were two of the top teams in the country (ranked 17th and 2nd respectively). Syracuse went on to win in overtime in what was one of the most exciting college basketball games in years. Now, let’s look at a Sweet Sixteen game in the same year, late into March and deep into the NCAA Tournament. On March 27th, Dayton defeated Stanford to progress to the Elite Eight where they would eventually lose to Florida. Neither Dayton nor Stanford were ranked in the top 25 coming into the tournament as Dayton was an 11-seed and Stanford a 10-seed yet their Sweet Sixteen match up drew 7.11 million television viewers (U.S.), well over 2 million more viewers than the Duke-Syracuse game. Of the fifteen games played in the Sweet Sixteen and beyond, only 3 games fell below the Duke-Syracuse game in TV popularity. Interestingly as well, out of those 15 games, only 4 occurred between two teams that could have been considered to be ranked in the top 20 (games between 1,2,3 and 4 seeds). Thus is the magic of March; any team can suddenly be thrown directly into the national spotlight. The season is on the line in every game and the players play their hearts out just for the opportunity to play another game. There’s no group play or second legs; any loss means the end of the season and could mean the end of a player’s career. These factors intensify the emotions and excitement of the games and help to make TV “gold.”
So can this “madness,” that is this sudden explosion of popularity in a super-intense tournament fashion, translate to sports outside of college basketball? For some sports, the answer is certainly no, due to a number of factors. Football (NFL), for one, has too many injury risks that would make it near impossible and quite dangerous for teams to play in such a tournament, especially in so few days. Professional baseball (MLB) and basketball (NBA) could replicate a comparable tournament-style playoff, but their playoff systems have been around for so long that it seems unlikely that they would make such a drastic change, especially when they’re already so popular. Many professional soccer leagues have no playoff system to determine their champion, but there are plenty of tournament-style competitions that occur throughout the season. The problem however, is exactly that; teams compete in intense tournaments but often they are dispersed over the entire course of the year and tournament games are played between league games and international games and it isn’t condensed enough to generate such intense buzz. Many tournaments also have group play and second legs, devaluing the importance of games as they aren’t truly life or death. In other college sports, the tournament format is easier to replicate and many of the top NCAA sports (Baseball, Soccer, Softball, Lacrosse, Field Hockey) have tournament-style playoff systems similar to NCAA Basketball’s “March Madness.” These tournaments are formidable, exciting, and intense yet they lack the pandemonium, the “Madness”, of the NCAA Basketball tournament. The entire nation doesn’t erupt with chaos when “Cinderella teams” beat the odds or when President Obama picks an upset in an important match up. The “March Madness” concept is one that everyone can participate in; whether a fan or not, anyone can fill out a bracket and track the success of their picks. The tournament is set up is such that every March, without fail, a nation of fans emerges, not necessarily all college basketball fans, but fans of the “Madness” and craziness that is the NCAA Basketball tournament.
So what, if anything, replicates the “Madness” of the NCAA Basketball tournament? Every four years, the FIFA World Cup comes around and World Cup fervor not only rivals “March Madness,” but surpasses it (globally). As the world experienced this past summer, the insanity associated with the FIFA World Cup is like nothing else. Sports fans all across the world dropped everything else and for one month focused on the World Cup and the craziness continued to build with each coming day in Brazil until Germany were crowned champions. While there is a group stage (and I’ve previously critiqued group stages), it doesn’t actually hinder the “Madness” of the World Cup, if anything it actually intensifies it as the group stage draw occurs well before the World Cup and helps to start to build excitement for the tournament. The final 16 teams compete in a single-elimination style tournament, comparable to the entire NCAA Basketball tournament, and specifically the Sweet Sixteen. Just like “March Madness” in the U.S., sports fans across the world rush to be a part of and to witness the World Cup in ridiculous numbers. Similarly, the Cricket World Cup draws an intense fan following but the impact is not as global and is focused in the eastern hemisphere (as “March Madness” focuses in the U.S.).
While these international events and others, like the Olympics, create an impassioned and frenzied sports world every few years, the NCAA Basketball tournament produces “Madness” year in and year out and no March goes by without a heavy dosage of emotion and excitement in the form of college basketball.