I’ve never liked March Madness. That’s maybe not the most auspicious start to a sports editorial, but there it is. I’m not a huge fan of any of the so-called “Big Four” sports in the U.S.: football, basketball, baseball and hockey. Baseball is the one I tolerate the best, perhaps because of its more statistical, methodical bent. I haven’t watched a lot of hockey, but it’s another sport where large groups of men move in packs towards each other in pursuit of a ball (or a puck), so I’m assuming I don’t like it either. I don’t have a moral opposition to the mainstream sports in America. I’m just bored by them most of the time, and the fascination of watching your favorite team has always eluded me. This may be partially due to my status as a native of Kansas City, where the Royals have just started to be good again, and the Chiefs haven’t made it to a Super Bowl since 1970.
My dislike of mainstream sports is also a result of the fact that I’m not personally that competitive. I don’t need my team to win in order to be happy; I appreciate skill regardless of who has it. So something about watching rabid University of Kansas (KU) fans insist on their superiority to every other team year after year is kind of a turn-off. I haven’t really formed allegiances to sports teams, and Jewell isn’t ever going to be in in the NCAA tournament (I don’t think that’s possible). There isn’t really any reason for me to be interested.
It might be important here to explain how the NCAA tournament works, since I’ll be using the lingo for the rest of the article (and also to prove my own credibility). The tournament starts with 64 teams: the voting process is complicated, but a panel selects 60 teams and eight teams play qualifying games for the remaining four spots. This process also determines seeds—how likely a team is to do well in the tournament. There are four regions (which have to do with where the game is played and not the teams’ actual locations on the map), and each region has 16 teams, seeded from 1-16. A 1-seed is thought to have the best chance based on regular season and conference tournament play—this year’s top seeds were The University of Virginia, KU, Xavier University in Ohio, and Villanova in Pennsylvania.
After the bracket is settled, the teams play each other in single-elimination matches, eventually whittling their way down to the final two teams who will play for the national championship. The various stages of the tournament are known as the Round of 64, the Round of 32, the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and the championship game (the numbers refer to the number of teams, e.g. the Round of 64 consists of 32 games). The Final Four is an important benchmark because teams who make it there are considered threats in the next tournament. This year’s Final Four teams were Villanova, KU, Loyola University in Chicago and the University of Michigan. Villanova won the championship game.
The mathematical quality to the determination of teams and the setup of a bracket means I probably wouldn’t dislike the NCAA tournament so much if it weren’t overplayed and overhyped. In 2015, more than 127,000 hours of sports were broadcast in the U.S., and the NCAA tournament represented about 157.5 of those hours, assuming that each game lasted about 2.5 hours. That doesn’t even consider the four qualifying games played before the Round of 64, or the individual conference tournaments. That may not seem like much airtime, but that’s excluding the hours of college basketball games broadcast before that. Combined, NFL, NBA, and MLB games have $9.2 billion in TV contracts. The National Hockey League was, surprisingly, not on Nielsen’s Top 10, but this list included the Olympics and World Cup, sporting events that have more international appeal.
The NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament is, for me, just another incarnation of the American obsession with men who can play sports. I think my issues with March Madness can be neatly summed up in the story of my youth pastor, who my senior year of high school on a mission trip to Panama was concerned because the remote village we were staying in didn’t have Wi-Fi. He was upset that he couldn’t submit his bracket to Warren Buffet’s one-billion-dollar bracket competition. That year, if you submitted a perfect bracket, predicting every single game correctly (a feat whose odds are something like 1 in 9.2 quintillion), you won $1 billion.
Needless to say, no one won. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the pastor cared more about his bracket than the people we were there to help. I did question his priorities though. It was the first time I really understood just how big of a deal the tournament was. More importantly, I didn’t get it. It doesn’t help that the only NCAA sport I watch regularly is women’s gymnastics, whose broadcast was cancelled this year as they approach their post season in favor of showing conference basketball tournaments. It always feels like the sports I’d actually watch are less important to the general public, which is fine, but I’m a viewer, too. There is also the fact that men’s basketball gets this kind of publicity and women’s does not. Though, to be fair, The University of Connecticut (UConn), has won 11 out of 36 women’s tournaments, which makes the whole thing less interesting.
Despite my aversion to the ones that are shown on TV regularly, I have developed an interest in sports in the last few years. I love the Olympics, and I watch them pretty regularly when they’re on, and when I have time. I was sad I had to miss so much of them this year because of my other commitments. My favorite thing about the Olympics, besides the fact that the networks broadcast sports, like gymnastics, swimming and track and field, that don’t normally get exposure and are more exciting to me than the ones that do, is the potential for an athlete to come out of nowhere and win unexpectedly. Talent is not exclusive to Americans, or to a team with one player so dominant that it doesn’t matter if the rest of them are any good.
In this year’s Winter Olympics, Red Gerard, 17, of the U.S. won gold in men’s slope style snowboarding, despite having come into the final run in last place. Yun Sungbin, a 23-year-old from South Korea, won the skeleton competition, earning him South Korea’s first gold medal in a non-skating event. Shaun White, 33, also of the U.S. is not exactly an unknown, but it was so satisfying watching him win the snowboard half-pipe after his disappointing run in Sochi in 2014. The Olympics are full of stories like that. These athletes are just the ones I happened to catch this year. Every four years, I come away with a new appreciation for the unexpected and the magic of watching someone achieve at the highest level of their sport.
Sometimes, the NCAA tournament seems to be missing this air of excitement. There are always a few upsets: The University of Kansas’s 2015 loss to Wichita State in the Round of 32 is a prime example, as is number one seed University of Virginia’s historic loss to 16-seeded University of Maryland Baltimore County in this year’s tournament. However, one of a few teams predicted to have what it takes to do so comes out on top most of the time. In the past 10 tournaments (2008-2017), 7 of the winners have been number one seeds. This includes last year’s winner, the University of North Carolina. The lowest seed to win the tournament in the past 10 years was a number 7 (UConn, 2014). The lowest-ranked team ever to win a tournament (since seeding began) was Villanova in 1985. They were a number 8 seed. The lowest-ranked teams to make the Final Four were 11-seeds (Louisiana State University in 1986, George Mason in 2006, Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011, and Loyola Chicago this year).
So, of the 156 seeded teams who’ve made the final four (4 per year since 1979), only one-thirty-ninth of them have been 11-seeds, and none have been 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16 seeds. Statistically, March Madness is actually fairly predictable in the later rounds. Upsets tend to occur in earlier ones. There isn’t a lot of chance for the underdog to come out on top in the end. That’s part of what’s missing for me.
But now that I’ve talked about all the reasons I dislike the tournament, I want to talk about a game that showed me why so many people love it. I didn’t have very high hopes Saturday night March 18 when I found myself watching Loyola University in Chicago (11) take on the University of Tennessee (3) in the Round of 32. Tennessee is one of the South Eastern Conference’s better teams, and Loyola Chicago hadn’t been in the tournament in 33 years. The outcome seemed inevitable, but it wasn’t. Against the odds, Loyola triumphed, and in the flashiest way possible, making a two-point shot seconds from the buzzer to break the tie. Their chaplain, 98-year-old Sister Jean Dolores Smith, seemed thrilled, but not surprised. Tennessee fans were surprised and not thrilled. The kid who made the winning shot, freshman Clayton Custer, (who, to paraphrase my father, has any job he wants with a Loyola alum after he graduates), in contrast to his chaplain, looked shell-shocked. It was satisfying to watch Loyola celebrate a win they didn’t think they’d pull out.
The game didn’t change all my feelings about March Madness, though the team later making the Final Four is a pretty awesome feat considering the statistical likelihood (they lost to the University of Michigan in that game). But, for a moment, watching those men, their fans and my dad (the University of Iowa didn’t make the tournament this year, so he was only in it for the upsets) celebrate their Cinderella moment, I understood the hype.
Photo courtesy of Thebasketballnetwork.com