I’ve been meaning to post some of my thoughts on my changing relationship with spectator sports, but between procrastination and the difficulties that I’ve had pinning down some of the specific points I’m trying to make, that series has yet to kick off. Today, however, I’m skipping ahead and posting part five of the series – the bit about the one sport that I really quite like – because it’s rather timely and given my uneven publication schedule, that may not be the same when I would otherwise get around to it. After the jump, check out the whys and hows of the one major spectator sport that I think gets things right.
As the season winds down in nearly every major sport, leagues winnow out the lesser half or so teams and advance their superiors to championship contention. But here in March, college basketball turns this equation on its head. The gates are opened to nearly everyone and teams that have been adrift in a sea of irrelevance all season are given one final opportunity to compete for a championship. Superior teams prevail the vast majority of the time, but nevertheless it is this chance – illustrated in bracket form – that is one of the things that makes college basketball the most entertaining major spectator sport in the USA.
I was hooked on the NCAA tournament at a very early age. By the time I was 9 years old, I had figured out how to be conveniently too sick for school on the tournament’s opening day. I still remember that day fondly. Sitting around sorting the new year’s baseball cards, eating powdered doughnuts, rocking out to Huey Lewis and getting the answers to the ultimate bracket quiz… for a fourth grader in 1987, it doesn’t get much better than that.
It was around this time – I don’t remember exactly when – that I started entering my bracket picks into tournament pools. One pool in particular would produce a composite sheet listing everyone’s picks for each game so that anyone could keep score at home. Needless to say, I loved looking at all the permutations and figuring out where the pool’s consensus and uniformity could be broken down. One year, when there was no tournament pool for me to submit my brackets, I took it upon myself to run the pool at my mom’s office. I was 12 years old.
Before the Big Dance, however, March Madness begins in earnest during the Championship Week fortnight. Unlike so many of ESPN’s contrived marketing schemes (“Gut Check Week” or whathaveyou), Championship Week lives up to its billing as a week (or two) of nonstop, high-level, winner-take-all hoops action. Crazy things happen during Championship Week… missed free throws or too many men on the court technical fouls costing teams NCAA Tournament berths, six overtime games, 20 point comebacks fueled by a guy who scores 42 of his team’s 66 points… and court stormings. Lots of court stormings.
Truth be told, however, these types of performances happen during the regular season too. Acts One and Two of the college basketball season – the nonconference November and December games followed by the new year’s conference play – merely take the concentrated awesomeness of March and string the drama out over a four month period that’s neither so short to produce random results nor too long to linger past its welcome. In fact, the season length is perfect for ensuring enough urgency such that the better team usually comes out on top, but at the same time, it provides just enough opportunity such that upsets are inevitable, making any game a potential trap door ready to spring open.
Like baseball, there are big games just about every night during the college basketball season, making the game a constant companion throughout the winter months that’s always there for appreciation. At the same time, every team is in action on Saturday or Sunday, so the football fan who fills the weekend with sports can just as easily keep abreast of the game.
Oh, and with upwards of 330 schools competing at the division one level, lots and lots of people have a built-in rooting interest, if not two or three. The teams have distinct identities forged through unique playing styles, fan bases and home courts. Home court advantage is more meaningful in college basketball than any other sport.
But while these factors and more have kept my interest in college basketball, it was the brackets that drew me in so many years ago. The empty bracket sheet – a simple graphical depiction of seemingly infinite possibilities – provided a roadmap for the big games to come, even if its coy ambiguity would keep the identities of the participants a mystery. Each year, I would try to figure out how the story would play out… sometimes with a little success. But unlike so many Hollywood blockbusters, it was always a story that kept you guessing.
Today, even as I’ve dropped out of any and all other fantasy sports and prediction games, I’m still a tournament geek and amateur bracketologist. I’m running a pool over at Yahoo! for the ninth consecutive year (drop a note in the comments if you’d like to join) and will probably participate in two or three others, often with a litany of different entries. I’ve posted my tournament bracket projection, which I’ll continue to update right up until the Selection Show Sunday night.
With other sports, all this attention and thought and effort might feel like too much effort. I know that keeping up with fantasy baseball and football leagues certainly crossed the threshold from fun to work some time ago and caused me to reassess the way I felt about those sports overall. But not so for college basketball… and it’s that gut feeling that tells me that this has to be my single favorite spectator sport.