Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The History of March Madness

This week marks the beginning of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament, popularly known as “March Madness,” which determines the men’s college basketball champion.  The month-long competition, once relatively obscure, has become massively popular, commanding the attention of casual fans more than any other sporting event besides the Super Bowl.

In the 1950s, the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) remained the most prestigious postseason college tournament.  Over time, the NCAA surpassed it, with John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins teams dominating the competition throughout the 1960s and 70s, winning 10 titles in 12 years.  The NCAA split the field into four regions, with the winners of each area becoming known as the “Final Four.”  After airing on regional television in its early years, the final appeared on network television for the first time in 1973, as UCLA defeated Memphis State (The Big Dance, p. 100).

As with other sporting events I’ve analyzed, observers often point to one particular game that laid the groundwork for its rise. In the case of the NCAA Tournament, it was the 1979 title game between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. Though the game itself was not close, the much-hyped battle between the two future NBA stars produced the highest television rating in the history of the tournament, setting the stage for the event’s growth during the final two decades of the 20th century (and laying the groundwork for the NBA's boom in the 1980s).

The 1980s and 90s witnessed a series of close games involving elite programs and All-American players.  With college stars remaining in school for three or four years, many appeared in multiple Final Fours, including Houston’s Clyde Drexler (2) and Hakeem Olajuwon (3), Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing (3), as well as Duke’s Christian Laettner, who made it in all four of his seasons.  Indeed, Laettner’s Blue Devils replaced UCLA as the dominant program during this era, becoming the New York Yankees of the sport, loved by supporters and despised by opponents.

The emergence of ESPN in 1979 proved crucial to the rise of the tournament, as the nascent sports network covered every game of the hectic early rounds, breaking in to the ends of close contests to show dramatic finishes.  This technique made the first four days of March Madness among the most exciting in all of sports.  After witnessing the success of this formula, CBS purchased the rights to the entire tournament, putting all of the games on network television in 1991 (Big Dance, 105). 

By the 1990s, more and more offices held pools to see who could correctly fill out their brackets and predict the outcome of the tournament.  With everyone putting their money on the line, the office pool became a national phenomenon with even non-fans participating and rabidly following the results.  President Obama, himself a huge basketball fan, has publicly revealed his brackets on ESPN every year since he took office.  Long lunches are often the rule of the day during the early rounds, diminishing worker productivity.  With the emergence of the Internet, the situation has become worse as workers can now watch all games streaming on their office computers.  One firm suggests that 2.5 million workers will spend roughly 90 minutes watching the tournament while ESPN ‘s Liz Granderson proposes making the first two days of the tournament a national holiday (Challenger, Gray and Christmas).

Like most sporting events, the ratings for March Madness have declined in recent years due to competition from new entertainment options.  Furthermore, with players either skipping college entirely or only attending school for a year, few players participate in more than one Final Four anymore.  NBA greats such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, unlike their predecessors, never played in the tournament.  In their absence, the coaches of elite programs have taken center stage, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, and Kentucky’s John Calipari.  Nevertheless, March Madness remains the most consistently entertaining event in sports and I will follow my brackets religiously for the next month (at least until they’re busted!).

Sources: Barry Wilner and Ken Rappaport, The Big Dance: The Story of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, 2012.

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