March Madness = Magnificent Marketing [On the Contrary]
The NCAA Basketball Tournament rolls on this week, as any American should be aware. I say this because not only sports fans, but also anyone who reads, watches, or listens to the news cannot miss the coverage of the college hoops championship. It has been an eventful few weeks in the news, with the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown, the air strikes in Libya, congressional budget crises et al, and yet even National Public Radio found time to devote long stories to March Madness (of course, maybe this is just NPR trying to expand its appeal to more members since Congress voted to cut their funding). For some reason this basketball tournament catches the American zeitgeist more than any sporting event outside the Super Bowl and the Olympics, which is all the more impressive since for the most part the country does not seem to care much about college basketball during the other 11 months of the year.
The college basketball season starts in November, when we’re in the midst of sports overload (NFL, NBA, NHL, and sometimes even the tail end of The World Series games are being played). Throughout the season, the only real meaningful goal for each team is to make the tournament, which is possible without winning their conference, so every game does not have the life and death stakes of, say, a college football game. Players on the college teams might be good, but if they really have the potential to be future superstars in the NBA they will likely be gone after their first year (since the NBA only requires one year of college to be draft eligible—still an improvement from when they were plucking kids out of high school). There is no storied trophy like the Heisman for college basketball players. All in all, there is little in college basketball to draw the attention of someone who is not already a fan of a team or of the sport.
Why then, is March Madness leading the hour of news along with the Japanese nuclear disaster? Part of it is the Olympic Effect. Both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games are largely made up of sports Americans do not care about at any other time. How often do we hear about skiing, track and field, or swimming in a non-Olympic year? Yet when there is an International event incorporating them every four years, they seem like the most important sports in the world. Likewise, when we devote a month annually to the celebration of college basketball, it becomes more than a sport—it becomes a cultural event. All of this is really not the result of the game. It is the result of great marketing.
March Madness. The Sweet Sixteen. The Elite Eight. The Final Four. With that much alliteration, who couldn’t fall in love with this branding? It also makes the game easy to follow, as every win takes to the teams to another level with a clever name (except for my Alma Mater Pitt this year, who didn’t even make it to the Sweet Sixteen). Naming each level gives it a certain cache, so that just making it to the Sweet Sixteen can be seen as a triumph of sorts. In fact, the real goal of the teams seems to be more about making it to the Final Four than actually winning the National Championship. Being the champions is great, but it doesn’t have the rhetorical punch of the Final Four. Maybe they should work on that, though my only idea is “Cherished Champs,” which sounds a little 19th Century.
The games themselves are shorter than any professional sport, and thus easily digestible. Most take place around the same time with slight staggering so viewers can catch the last few minutes of each game separately. This is very conducive to people who want to follow the sport rather than actually watch it. The nature of basketball is that the last two minutes of the game are all you really need to watch, since if anything exciting is going to happen, it will be then. Meanwhile, it is a one-and-done single elimination tournament, meaning teams only need to beat an opponent once to advance. There is not a big investment of time—merely three weekends with steadily decreasing amounts of games to follow. This makes NCAA basketball perhaps the easiest sport to be a casual fan of.
Every year, people in work venues around the country fill out their office pool brackets, predicting how the tournament will progress. Every year, the sports-obsessed office nerd then goes insane as his bracket falls apart in the first round while Cindy from Accounting—who has never watched a basketball game in her life and picked her bracket based on team colors—keeps winning. Any team can win, and casual observers like Cindy can pick the games almost as well as a versed fan.
There are plenty of legitimate hoops fans that follow the college game throughout the season and see March as a culmination of their time and attention. Good for them. But for the majority of us, college basketball would not register on our radar at any time of the year without the brilliant design of the NCAA tournament. The fun names, the unpredictable games, and the fact that scheduling allows us to watch a few minutes of each game and feel like we’ve seen it all make college basketball the National Sport of the U.S.A. for three weeks every year.
I am not a basketball fan. I prefer contact sports, where the players don’t get penalized for accidentally touching an opponent’s hand. However, I do pay attention to the tournament every year, which just proves the power of the NCAA branding. The real triumph is not in the game, but in the game plan. I know I’m sold.