This article is about the way in which we consume the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament (better known as March Madness, or simply the Tourney). It is not intended to be a sports article. As I write this, the Final Four™ is set with many of the big names you know from past tournaments.
On the first day of the Tourney, I muted my computer’s speakers so that my roommate wouldn’t hear. He’s not a fan of basketball, or any other sport really. But for the first four days of the Tourney, I would be sitting in front of my computer—or, briefly, at a bar—watching as many games as possible.
For those who avoid the NCAA tournament like a sore thumb, talk of brackets can be dizzying. Essentially, the tournament is made up of 64 collegiate basketball teams. (Now 68 teams because of the cumbersome play-in games played earlier in the first week). Losses end bracket stems like extinct ancestors on the tree of life. The tree is pruned of 32 leaves in as many games. All of this takes place on Thursday and Friday while spring on earth begins somewhere far away from whatever basketball sanctuary you have chosen.
I would even contend the first weekend of March Madness has become bigger drinking holidays than St. Patrick’s Day. Bars in Portland, Oregon opened at 8:30am pst for third round (Saturday and Sunday) games. Local bars host bracket challenges and the pot is usually hefty for a minimal buy-in. These brackets are creative expressions, in a sense, a way for anyone to have the tournament of their choosing. Not to mention, a great way for bars to gather patrons for drinks during the Tourney.
For anyone as compulsive as me, sunrise to sundown Tourney action (every game is streaming live on CBS’s and the NCAA’s websites) is irresistible. I found depression settling in when only one game was left. Lower still if that game was a blowout. These are the modern (gratis) stakes of a sports event as big as March Madness.
The tournament and its advertisers recognize the impulse of many watchers. In the corner of the streaming video, there is the “BOSS BUTTON”. If your boss happens by your desk, click it and you are sent to a screen of fake graphs and jargon. NPR has speculated a loss of worker production during March Madness (the evidence for this seems sketchy at best). But Coke Zero ads offer a message of support: “It’s not your fault you’re watching the tournament instead of working.”
It’s become passé to gripe about advertisements. After all, Coke Zero allows us to stream the tournament for free—that is, as long you have a cable account with your local cable company. (Loophole: if you know of anyone, such as your parents, with a cable account, you can use their username and password to access Tourney action.) Be warned though: advertisements are creeping on all sides of the stream. Below games is a “key moments” graph that looks like a sonogram readout and includes video of plays that received especially high numbers of tweets. Twitter itself feels less like a company sponsoring the tournament than a form of communication as common as singing telegrams were during the Great Depression.
Every four minutes of game time is interrupted by what is called a “TV timeout”—or, as it is called during regular programming, a commercial break. Then there are the other interruptions: team timeouts, referee reviews, injured players. The normally insufferable commentator Doug Gottlieb was unable to stop from expressing what was on viewers’ minds: the frequency of commercial interruptions is infuriating.
The most exciting narrative of the Tourney has always been that of the underdogs, the so-called “Cinderella teams”. They are the teams with the lowest seed numbers, usually from small conferences, and are now distinguishable by their uniforms, which often lack the ornate and costly design of teams from major conferences. When you fill out a bracket, you often knock off these Cinderellas in the early rounds. Statistically, it makes sense. But because I didn’t fill out a bracket this year, I was free—emotionally—to cheer on the underdogs.
The experience of watching the Tourney reminded me of this past summer during the Olympics. I spent two giddy weeks watching events from every sport. I watched a teenager shock the world of archery, though I had no idea how the sport was scored or won or even played really. I watched handball, equally as confusing as archery. I watched dressage. Like the NCAA tournament, I could switch from stream to stream without a moment lapsed into life outside the computer.
At the beginning of those two weeks, I evangelized courageously to my roommate. Isn’t this fantastic? I would say. But I saw he did not have the same interest. Slowly I retreated to my room. I became ashamed of my consumption, and the only way to compare the shame is to an addict and his addiction. (Let’s say I’m a New York executive and the Olympics is a dominatrix I see when my wife is out of town…)
I grew superstitions watching the tournament. If a game didn’t render into higher quality fast enough, I’d close and re-open the window only to find the same conditions. I timed my jump to other games before commercials started. I muted the game before commercials started and surfed to other websites. These are, perhaps, the first signs of extreme detachment from the outside world.
When I finally ventured outside to bars, even sports bars, I still felt relegated for watching the tournament. Possibly it is because the Northwest is both not as interested and under-represented in the tournament. (When I lived in Florida, the tournament received much more attention.) But always there were other sympathetic viewers who had followed the games on their phones. They glanced away from the TV only to find their beers. It was a project that, once started, we passionate observers could not neglect.