In just a few days the field of the NCAA basketball tournament will be set and March Madness will begin in earnest.
In the latest installment of "A Fan's Notes," Victor Wishna looks for a method in the madness and finds that the road to the Final Four is paved with poetic intentions:
“A little madness in the spring / is wholesome / even for the king.”
No, Emily Dickinson was likely not writing about basketball. It would still be a few years before a fellow Massachusettsan, James Naismith, would grab a couple of peach baskets and invent the game.
But these days, in spring, anyone talking about “madness”—especially in March—can only mean one thing. Officially known as the NCAA Division I Men’s—and Women’s—Basketball Championships, these tournaments have become one of the biggest festivals of the sports calendar.
The formal mayhem will begin Sunday evening, when the pairings for the 68-team men’s tournament are announced, and the all-important bracket will be ready for downloading, printing, and pondering.
According to USA Today, 40 million brackets will be filled out this week and the FBI estimates that $2.5 billion will be wagered on them, some of it legally. Even President Obama, as he has done the past three years, is expected to unveil his bracket on national TV.
These next three weeks are the NCAA’s bread and butter—and their champagne and caviar, too. Last year, CBS and Turner Sports paid $10.8 billion to broadcast the tourney through 2024. The players, of course, won’t see a penny of that, except in the form of an unguaranteed scholarship.
So, yeah, it’s big business—especially around here. The Kansas Jayhawks alone profited more than $15 million in merchandise royalties, ticket sales, and TV revenue, ranking them fourth on Forbes magazine’s most recent list of the nation’s most valuable college basketball programs.
And none of that, come next week, guarantees a thing. Just ask Obama—last year, he picked Kansas to win it all. Oops.
But that’s why I think we are so mad for March Madness. Of the 68 teams selected, 67 will end their season with a loss, but every single one of them will have a chance to win it all, at least in theory.
There will be suspense, buzzer-beating drama, maybe even inspiration, the stuff fairy tales are made of: At the Big Dance, it is almost guaranteed that some Cinderella—a school you may never have heard of, with a budget unworthy of Forbes—will, to mix metaphors, slay one of the Goliaths.
And even if you’re rooting for Goliath (hey, Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!), it’s this narrative that matters. Last year’s championship game between tiny Butler and big bad Connecticut was, from a statistical standpoint, one of the worst finals ever played. But it still drew millions more viewers than any one game of a dozen previous NBA Finals.
Because the stakes just feel so much higher. For pro players, so many of whom have been to the playoffs before, there will almost always be a next year. Not so for most college kids, who may only get this one shot, this one shining moment. (That theme is probably why the closest the NBA has ever come to March Madness is…Linsanity.)
For fans, there’s a bit of nostalgia, too. The lure of March Madness isn’t the thrill of something we’ll never do, but a longing for that time we’ll never have again. “That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet,” Emily Dickinson wrote. Who hasn’t daydreamed of that one shining moment when anything was possible?
As Dickinson also wrote: “I dwell in possibility.” So do sports fans, I think. Behind all the brackets and point spreads, beneath all the hype and cliché of March Madness, there’s a little bit of poetry, too.