Friday, February 16, 2007

Anticipating Madness

March will soon arrive and all good sports fans will be expected to talk about basketball. The NCAA Tournament has become some kind of rite of spring. It commands our attention. Sixty-five teams from colleges across the country are invited in and every one has an opportunity, if not a legitimate chance, to win a national championship. Each game, each basket, each turnover is magnified because when a team loses a game, its season in finished. There are no second chances in the NCAA’s.
This event has grown on its own merits, but also has benefited from one of the most successful marketing campaigns in media history. A little alliteration goes a long way, it seems. “March Madness” and “March Mayhem” have become household catchphrases. Accompanied by a deep-voiced man booming it through your TV speakers with a background of up-tempo horns and video clips showing fantastic finishes, the allure is unmistakable. Television does a commendable job of showcasing the most compelling games and playing up the underdog storylines. It’s not so difficult to generate enthusiasm for an event which has at its base stories of success and inspiration.
All good sports fans do talk about basketball in March, but so do non-sports fans. That’s another reason this event has become part of the American fabric. It carries on for weeks and basically commands our attention. Why? Great sport certainly helps, but it’s gambling that has caused folks to tape open their eyelids and pay attention. The legal, conventional wagering in places like Las Vegas is dizzying. The amount of money bet on the internet and offshore is staggering. Gamblers are gamblers and this is just part of a routine year for them. It’s what happens among people who know who Bobby Brady is but couldn’t pick out a photo of John Brady that sets this thing apart.
Chances are a bracket will show up in front you. Someone you know, perhaps in your office, will start a contest. “Fill out a bracket,” you’ll be urged. “Even if you don’t know about basketball, it’s a lot of fun.” You might be compelled to throw ten dollars into and envelope in the hope of winning hundreds. Only the media elite can pretend to know something significant about every team in the tournament. I dare say no one has seen every team play. So, this bracket business becomes a big lottery. The lure of easy money is real. The desire to fit in, to participate in something with friends or co-workers, compels us to take a chance with our ten-spot. This is like Super Bowl squares on steroids. The process goes on and on, giving people something pedestrian to talk about. If you choose not to participate, you run the risk of being something of an outcast. Everyone’s invited to the party; sometimes you just need to ask if you can come in.
Whether or not it’s a good idea, the tournament brings us together. Troubles are set aside for a moment as we discuss how last night’s buzzer beater became a bracket buster. A flurry of e-mails with updated standings cuts into office productivity. Somebody’s elementary school kid will be in first place in your bracket contest after the first two rounds, and you find yourself pulling for the kid because you know he can use the money. He won’t win because his picks have no basis in reason. He’s an elementary school kid, after all. Instead, some friend of a friend of a co-worker who’s an Alabama alumnus will hit the jackpot and you’ll be disgusted for a half-day. In a couple of weeks you may not remember who won the national championship. Next March, we’ll do it all again. Is it Madness? You be the judge.

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