It’s March, which may seem consequential for things like daylight savings time (unless you live in Saskatchewan), something or other about an equinox, or even, perhaps, the fact that March is the best month to have a birthday (I may be biased). But, my birthday notwithstanding, these are all wrong. March is March because March is March Madness.
What is March Madness? You might ask, as you realize something incredibly important has passed you by every spring and lean in closer to learn what could possibly be better than the celestial alignment of the Earth with the sun returning daylight, and therefore, meaning, to your life. Well, dear neophyte, March Madness is the drama, the pathos, the excitement you didn’t know you were desperately missing. If you ever wondered if you were lacking in unhealthy attachments, the answer is a definitive yes.
Let me explain: every year the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) holds a Division I basketball tournament for men and women’s basketball. I say women’s basketball, but unfortunately, I’m really just referring to the men’s side. Like in most things, the women’s side is largely shunted into obscurity, relegated to secondary network channels. But the gendered politics of sport are for another time. Anyway, this tournament is called March Madness. To win March Madness, your team must be perfect. Sixty-eight teams are invited to play, then seeded (ranked) to determine who they play in the first round in their respective conferences (East, West, Midwest and South). Top-seeded teams play lower-seeded teams in early rounds to make sure better teams make it to the finals. It’s a single elimination tournament. You lose once and you’re out. Naturally this leads to enjoyable upsets and Cinderella stories when lower-seeded teams go on a hot streak and knock out tournament favourites – here’s looking at you Wisconsin. You don’t need to know anything about college basketball to get unhealthily invested in this tournament , although it helps. But, you can get caught up on long-standing grudges, the teams everyone hates (everyone hates Duke, if Duke wins, everyone loses. Thankfully, Duke has already been eliminated) and players to watch, pretty quickly.
And now you’re asking why – why does this matter at all, you’re reading stuff from Navigator not TSN or ESPN. Here’s why: the other fun part of March Madness – I would argue it’s as fun as actually watching the games themselves – is reading the coverage. Because this tournament is elimination, because the players are incredibly young (I mean kids, I mean born in the late 90s, I mean really young, okay), because they still have to go to CLASS the day after a devastating loss (again, Duke), March Madness is as much about the storylines, the narratives that get developed, as it is about the basketball. Let’s all bask in the glory of exciting long-form sports journalism. And also, because the NCAA is actually pretty evil and all of these kids are exploited under the guise of amateur sports. See? Drama.
The entire NCAA hinges on the fact that athletes are “student-athletes”. The hyphen is very important because it lets the NCAA determine that intercollegiate sports are “avocational”, aka not a job, aka, you shouldn’t get paid. Which would be fine if we were operating in a world where the righteousness of sport and opportunity was what this was all about and not the fact that the commercialization of college sport has led to a billion-dollar industry. March Madness alone is expected to rake in $900 million for 2017 in revenue. Conferences get some of this payout, and the conferences are supposed to divide the money amongst their schools, but they have to cover the expenses of the tournament as well. There’s a lot of accounting and explaining away that happens with the NCAA and its profits (also the fact that it’s considered a nonprofit), but none of it goes to the players. There’s also a lot of criticism about a model that relies on players whose scholarships (which only account for about 5-7% of the revenue) can be revoked if they’re injured and includes players complaining about being unable to afford food when the NCAA is raking in the dollars. Coaches also make an obscene amount of money, bringing in between $2-$6 million a year. On top of that, according to the NCCA’s own stats, the likelihood of playing pro basketball is 1.1%, leading many to question the “student” part of “student-athlete”, saying NCAA players receive inflated grades to ensure eligibility, and because quite frankly, many don’t have time to compete in both an incredibly demanding athletic program and academics.
Now let’s go back to the coverage. Besides diving into the actual games, each March, you can delve into the intricacies of the funding models and see how the NCAA keeps trying to spin itself out of the annual exploitation muck. The NCAA reflects the world we live in, and there is a racialized element to this whole thing, that is pointed out more and more frequently. The vast majority of the top brass of the NCAA are old white men and NCAA players are predominantly young black men, and that’s not just an optics thing, it can also play out in people’s attitudes on paying these players.
Plus, there’s the fact that many of these kids are living their glory days right in front of you, in front of an audience. Although we all know meritocracies don’t exist anymore, sometimes it really feels like they do when some freshman showcases undeniable and promising talent and is instrumental in taking his team to the Sweet Sixteen. So all things considered, dreams are actually being made and broken here, and March 19, the first Sunday of the tournament, was the most-watched first Sunday in 24 years. The stakes on this thing are ratcheted up to 12, and I haven’t even talked about the gambling. Fans create tournament brackets predicting winners for each round, and bet on the outcome. For 2017, The American Gaming Association expects Americans to bet $10.4 billion on March Madness.
Those of us who are fans are complicit in this whole exploitation factor, and to be clear, I’m not advocating for the exploitation even if I can’t seem to remove myself. My point is that the NCAA makes you care and it makes you care a lot. My point is that the more I know about the sketchy structure of this whole thing, the more I care about these players. My point is that I have a hard time watching a 6’11 ambidextrous German teen single-handedly dismantle the defence of one my final four picks and not read everything about him.
My point is that if you want to see seven different layers of how a story can get told and how far it can go, and how quickly the tides can change for or against you in the span of three weeks, how unlikely teams and players rise to the top and how old storylines (Tom! Izzo! In! March!) get rehashed whenever it’s appropriate to rehash them, then follow the tournament. My point is this is both terrible and great, it’s sometimes serious and sometimes incredibly ridiculous and funny. My point is that this is every kind of coverage all rolled into one month.
Look, I’m not saying this is going to revolutionize your communications or reinvent the way you do business, but this is a real-life sports movie that plays out every year. Let it wash over you and accept that yes, you can in fact care this much about a nineteen-year-old from Bentonville Arkansas (where??) for reasons as arbitrary as the fact that he wears your old jersey number to ones as concrete as the fact that 95 per cent of the time he wants to win more than anyone else on the floor. I’m saying accept that it’s March, and accept that it’s Madness, and read all about it.