Why the NCAA basketball Tournament is the “American Idol” of sports

Posted on April 25, 2010

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[Warning: What follows is an overly long post, even by the standards of this rambling blog. It is summarized over the last 3 paragraphs or so.]

At some point during the month-long March Madness gabfest on sports talk-radio Mike Greenberg (on ESPN’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning”) was railing against proposals to expand the tournament from 65 to 96 teams. “I just don’t get it,” he sighed (and I’m reconstructing this from memory), “if a Martian came down to Earth and saw this proposal he’d say ‘You’ve already got the most perfect tournament imaginable, why do you want to change it?!’”

I have already written on that particular proposal; here and here. But Greenberg’s rhetorical Martian question is interesting for two other reasons. First, for the idea, echoed by so many American sports commentators each March that this tournament approaches the Platonic Form for Sporting Events. And second, the assumption that foreign sports fan – even a Martian – would immediately recognize this fact.

I’ll come back to the first point in a minute. The fact that the Tournament is so beloved by serious and casual sports fans alike must surely give us some insights into what it is about spectator sports that we find so appealing. But to get gain access to these insights we have to see how unusual and initially uninteresting the Tournament would seem to most foreign sports fans, even foreign basketball fans. It is not at all obvious that a Spaniard or an Argentine landing in America, let alone a Martian, would be struck by how perfect the Tournament is.

As far as I know, in no other country are collegiate sports the de facto development leagues for the major “big-league” team sports. These big-league sports vary from country to country. Soccer is the biggest professional sport in most countries, with basketball growing in popularity in many parts of the world, and sports like ice hockey, baseball, rugby, cricket, and handball being big in some regions; and sports like Australian Rules football, American football, or hurling being huge in one or two countries. In most countries that I am familiar with, there are inter-university sporting competitions involving the local big-league sports. But only in America are the university teams the place where most future big-leaguers (in football and basketball) are groomed.

Elsewhere, future big-league stars are developed in junior leagues, in lower divisions of the main league, or in development leagues involving youth players already signed by big-league teams.

But nowhere (and I would be happy to be corrected if there are exceptions to this bold claim) do the championships in these youth or development leagues rival the major leagues in terms of glamour or prestige. Nobody pays much attention to even the world under-21 championships in major sports like soccer or basketball, or to the world junior hockey championships. They are worth watching, and can be fun, but they certainly don’t arrest the attention of the sporting public.

So a championship between teams of young basketball players, almost all of whom will never be good enough to play in the NBA, would not strike any foreign sports fan as an obviously exciting proposition.

And yet, it clearly has become a uniquely special and engaging fixture in the American sporting imagination. Why? Why should we care so much more about who wins the NCAA basketball national championship than Europeans care about, say, who wins the third division of their soccer league (which arguably stands in skill level to the top division as the Tournament teams do to the NBA)?

The answer, surely, is that there is a lot more to the drama and quasi-aesthetic enjoyment of sports spectatorship than admiring the play of the most highly skilled practitioners of a sport. The Tournament, and the way it is covered in the media, has evolved to highlight some of these other elements to an extraordinary degree. Having sifted through the coverage last month on radio, TV, newspapers, blogs, and actual game coverage, here is my first pass at summarizing the themes that attracted most of our attention.

1. Individual and team skills. Of course, I don’t want to downplay the fact that there is great basketball being played in the Tournament; I only want to say that this is not sufficient to make it captivating, since there is also great play in junior and development leagues in other sports or in, say, minor-league baseball and hockey in the US. Because of the NBA’s rule preventing players from entering that league immediately out of high school, there is a smattering of players in the NCAA who are good enough to play in the NBA (though not yet good enough to be stars). Also, unlike in other development leagues, the NCAA can claim to have some of the very best coaches in the world; which means that team-play and strategy levels can be truly élite.

2. Exciting contests. Basketball (unlike football, soccer, hockey) is the sort of sport in which a very large number of teams can have sufficiently comparable skill levels and luck to make for a lot of close games, and for the possibility of upsets. When there’s a lot of the line for the teams (“win or go home”) this makes for exciting viewing, whatever the technical quality of the basketball being played.

3. Identity hooks. Few non-Americans can appreciate the extent to which students and alumni in America identify with their schools. It’s somewhere between a tribal attachment and a die-hard brand loyalty. Many countries have prestigious universities that generate this kind of pride, but in the US it happens across the board; from Harvard to Appalachian State. So millions of people who don’t watch a single college basketball game all winter will tune in to watch their alma mater when it is among the final 65. And their numbers are swelled by local fans who didn’t even go to college but who identify with the local team the way sports fans anywhere do.

4. Narrative hooks. The Tournament allows us to tell tales – stories that have nothing to do with basketball per se, but which echo long-standing narratives in the American tradition and beyond.

  • David v. Goliath – or is it Cinderella? Because basketball alternates turns on offence, and because it involves playing probabilities and luck with talent levels that are not drastically divergent, some “David” teams will knock off some “Goliath” teams every year. I’m sure psychologists and anthropologists can explain why this narrative is so compelling; but the fact is, it is. When fans have no other stakes in a game between two teams, this is enough to captivate their attention.
  • Work hard, believe in yourself, and succeed. Related to this is the general sympathy many casual fans have for the “little guy” with a dream and not much else, but who works hard to make it come true. We can pin this narrative on to the players of any team that isn’t a perennial powerhouse. But even at the late stages of the Tournament, it can stick to the best teams as well to help explain how they managed to survive longer than others.
  • Social class… and race. Although most of the top colleges recruit from a similar pool of top high-school players, there are enough differences between the identities of the schools and players to allow fans to see them as representing different socio-economic and ethnic strata in America. This narrative mixes with the previous two, allowing fans to line up for or against teams they associate with privilege, proletarian work ethic, “urban” cool, or what have you. There is something of a by-gone romance for the amateur-professional clash between the schools with “genuine” student-athletes who are perceived work hard at their studies and may not even be on athletic scholarships (e.g. at Cornell), on the one hand, and the one-and-done NBA stars-in-waiting who flout the academic missions of their schools (e.g. Kansas and Kentucky), on the other. Love-’em-or-hate-’em Duke is course a lightening rod for these social-class (and underlying race) narratives.
  • Witnessing kids enjoy their glorious 15-minutes on a big stage. Most of the stars of March Madness and of football Bowl games will never play another important game in their sport. They’ll never again look out on a big crowd, and they’ll never again be on TV. They have been outsized heroes in their own worlds, and finally on a national stage, for 8 years of high school and college. And that’s it. They won’t be drafted by the pros (although some will eke out a career in European basketball leagues). They are supernovas at 22. One suspects that few are as philosophical as Cornell’s point guard Louis Dale, quoting a line from Friday Night Lights in the press conference after his Ivy League team qualified for the Sweet 16: “We’ve got eight seniors on this team, and we want to take this ride as long as we can because after this it’s just nothing but babies and memories, so we’ll just keep going.” For fans there is something curiously special about watching this extraordinary moment in the emotional lives of individuals play out in real time.

5. It’s quick and decisive. At three weeks, the Tournament takes a little longer than Wimbledon and a little less time than the World Cup. That’s just about right for the relatively limited attention spans of sports fans in a slow month after the Super Bowl, before Opening Day, and with the interminable regular seasons of the NBA and NHL grinding to their conclusions. Most fans clearly don’t care about college basketball enough to sustain interest throughout the regular season (as they do, in greater numbers, for college football). But in large part because of the four factors above, they can find more than enough thrills and compelling story lines to pay attention for three weeks.

The Tournament works not because it is the Platonic Form of Sporting Event, because it is the perfect sporting storm. It works despite – and perhaps in part because of – the fact that it does not showcase the most élite practitioners of the sport. Instead, it provides a blank enough slate that we can almost project ourselves into the competition. It is about our values, our stories, our hopes and dreams, and our identities. We know virtually nothing about any of the characters in the games (apart from some famous coaches), so for three weeks we can imagine they are us, or we are them, or at least that they represent us. This is what we do when we immerse ourselves in fiction and in history.

But in some ways the closest parallel is the surprising popularity of American Idol and its various national franchises elsewhere. Some of the largest television audiences in the country will tune in weekly to watch talented-if-unoriginal amateur singers perform in a competitive setting. The biggest and most famous stars might get only a fraction of this audience for a prime-time concert special. But these amateurs are more like us. They are imperfect, fighting self-doubts and external critics, dreaming, sucking it up, pushing themselves, learning, growing, daring, and in many cases succeeding even when they lose. In the end it is less about the music than it is about these morality tales.

That too seems to be why we like NCAA basketball more than Europeans like under-21 soccer. Although, I dare say – unlike the music in Idol – the game ain’t bad either.

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