Monday, March 22, 2010

The Curious Popularity of March Madness

In the past I’ve been a bit of a bully, picking on lesser sports like swimming and softball. But today I’m going to take on one of our most popular sporting events, college basketball.

Don’t get me wrong. I totally get the appeal of March Madness. I watched the last ten minutes of Northern Iowa-Kansas and was captivated by every possession. I watched in wonderment yesterday as an Ivy League school, the 12 seed Cornell, completely dismantled a Big Ten team, the 4 seed Wisconsin. And I too felt the pain of watching my brackets crumble as Villanova and Kansas fell.

During my sophomore and junior years, I experienced the joy of watching my small school, Fairfield University, make the tournament (FU has only made the tourney three times in its history and I was lucky to be a student for two of them). Further, I’ve been to a Final Four weekend – North Carolina’s victory over Illinois in 2006 - and count it among my greatest experiences as a sports fan.

So I’m not here to knock college basketball exactly. Rather I’m here to wonder aloud how a sport that has so many potentially fatal flaws is so damned popular. Here is my list of why college basketball should suck:

+ Sixty Five teams make the postseason. Isn’t this ridiculous? Most professional sports leagues only have 30 teams or so, and fewer than half make the postseason. Baseball purists complain about wild cards because – gasp! –8 whole teams play in October. But in men’s basketball the tournament is the post-season and sixty–five frickin’ teams make it (and another half-dozen believe they got jobbed). This creates two problems for the casual fan. One, who can possibly track all these teams and still have cranium space for less important subjects like healthcare legislation or your children’s middle names. And two, it kinda sorta renders the entire “regular season” a joke – doesn’t it?

+ Roster Turnover. Even if you did have the time and energy to track so many teams, or even half of them, remember that all of these teams have 100% roster turnover at least every four years and the better players don't last that long. Carmelo Anthony, the best player to win a college championship the past 25 years, did it at as a freshman. We’d barely learned his name and he was gone from the sport. Imagine how much better this sport would be if we got to see Carmelo wearing orange for four years?

+ Mediocre Stars. Final Four weekends of yore featured future NBA legends on a regular basis. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson – they all played and excelled in the Final Four and most of them won a title and the Most Outstanding Player award. But the great players of today either skip college entirely (Lebron, Kobe, Garnett, Dwight Howard), pass through so quickly you don’t notice them (Steve Nash, Chris Bosh), can’t get their team out of the Sweet 16 (Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan), or come from abroad (Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming). Which leaves us watching a collection of mediocre players who will end up in Europe, coaching, or at the end of the Knicks bench. (For more detail, see my piece Heaven without Stars).

+ Unfair Matchups. In most sports, there is some sort of governing authority that sets the schedule and creates a level playing field. But in college sports there are multiple conferences that set a conference schedule, thus freeing up schools to set the rest of their schedule to their liking. The result is that the strong schools get to make the rules. If Fairfield wants to play North Carolina, North Carolina will say sure – in our building on the day we decide with ACC refs. And if you don’t like it, tough. That’s not very sporting, is it?

Can you imagine any other sport with these flaws? College football doesn’t – most college football players stay for four years, the conference schedule comprises most of the games, and only a handful of bowl positions really matter. Imagine the NBA with 300 teams, 65 in the post-season, all Laker-Clippers games at the Staples Center and LeBron already retired.

But you know what? It just doesn’t matter. Or maybe those very flaws are the game’s strengths. Who are these guys from Northern Iowa and Cornell? Is Kentucky as vulnerable as Kansas? Will Syracuse redeem the Big East? These questions, because of their newness, are much more interesting, or at least different, than wondering again if Brett Favre is returning, or watching Jeter and the Yankees making their 47th playoff run, or seeing Shaq win another ring with another talented teammate.

Besides, I’ve got Kentucky winning it all, so my sheet ain’t dead yet!

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