BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 03/14/2016

The real reasons we care about NCAA hoops

The NCAA tournament seems hugely popular, but is it the basketball? The schools? The competition? Nah. It’s the brackets. The tourney draws double the wagers of the Super Bowl.

The Stony Brook Seawolves of Long Island, N.Y., celebrate their first NCAA tourney berth Sunday. / Newsday

Maybe it’s because the only state school in the NCAA basketball tournament field is 11th-seeded Gonzaga. Maybe it’s because in the 10 years of the one-and-done rule forced upon colleges by the NBA — there’s no way for even the best programs to sustain season-long interest beyond the local fan base, because few know who anyone is, but do know the best will be gone in a short while.

Maybe it’s because the CBS selection show telecast Sunday stretched from one hour, which was already too long, to two bilious hours, apparently in order to unleash a cast of punditry in the hundreds (that included Charles Barkley, whom I normally enjoy, but he knows college basketball like Miley Cyrus knows the Iditarod). Fercripesake, it took 77 minutes for CBS to announce the final berths, even though someone had already tweeted out the selections before the show.

I grow a little weary of the NCAA tourney gluttony.

The tourney will have its inevitably delicious menu of buzzer-beaters, 12-seeds beating 5-seeds and the cheek-pinching of the Stony Brook Seawolves while saying, “wudgie, wudgie, wudgie!”

But the NCAA tournament seems to have a hollow core.

In no other American sport is the regular season followed so casually compared to the three-week postseason, when many go off-meds to participate in March Madness, whose visceral appeal has very little to do with the sport or the schools.

Occasionally I hear people still calling baseball the national pastime. No. that trite expression has long passed its expiration date, if it were ever true in the first place.

Other people try to seem enlightened by saying football has surpassed baseball as national pastime. Again, no. Sports may be a passion for many, but not a pastime.

We have only two widespread national pastimes:

  • Shopping
  • Gambling

Those two pursuits explain exactly why we enjoy March Madness.

The gambling, you understand. This Monday morning in offices, schools, factories, day care center and senior centers, someone is running around sticking into startled faces a copy of the NCAA tourney bracket and demanding participation via dollars.

Many participants who think krzyzewski is nothing more than a killer word for Scrabble triple-score will throw down, timidly, fearing they will be seen as an outcast, in the manner of a virgin in the Louisville basketball program.

Others who think they know something will fill out multiple brackets, because it provides a little emotional edge beyond a pure game of chance like, say, roulette. Although it’s rarely true.

That’s where renegade consumerism comes in. The tourney appeals in the way that shopping for something that we know will be finished off within three weeks tends to appeal. There’s little need to look beyond the shiny-sparkly fluff. So impulse rules. It’s a 64-team, blue-light special.

The net of these impulses is that gambling professionals estimate that more than $9 billion will be wagered on the tourney, or double what is bet on the Super Bowl. Because so many people who have minimal interest in college basketball and no interest in the schools nevertheless tune in, the tourney becomes a huge attraction for advertisers. These companies increasingly understand, except for live sports, almost nobody watches TV by appointment any more.

So advertisers will pay large coin for this rare, captive audience that typically will interrupt work schedules to pump fists at the images on TV, and stay for the ads.

In turn, that allows CBS and TNT to pay enormous fees to the NCAA for exclusive television and marketing rights. Those rights fees form the entire financial foundation of the NCAA, permitting its continued existence, in all its  bloated, unseemly, FIFA-lite glory.

More than 90 percent of the NCAA’s annual operating revenues come from the basketball rights — nearly $800 million annually, part of the $10.8 billion, 14-year deal the nets signed with the NCAA in 2006.

For nigh onto a hundred years now, we have been told that college athletes receive none of the proceeds from their skills in amusing us. We nod faux-somberly at that truth. But we don’t care, most of us; if we did, it would have changed.

Most of us don’t care about the schools, or the athletes, or the sport, or the competition for its own sake. We care about our brackets. That is all.

When you think about it, the scheme by the NCAA is diabolically brilliant. Doctor up the event with bands, cheerleaders and spittle-spraying coaches, and no one notices the irony: The only people who can’t gamble on it, nor make enough money off it to shop even for socks, are the participants, 99.8 percent of whom will not translate their experiences into careers in pro ball.

Just for fun, try something: Follow the tournament without a bracket that has stakes. Then let me know how it worked for you.



















  • dingle

    Brilliant and pithy. It’s always a great read when five or six different lines compete for my favorite. Thanks for this. And no, I’m not filling out a bracket. But I will follow the spectacle.

    (And a quick edit: “because few no” –> “because few know” in the first paragraph.)

    • art thiel

      Thanks for both. How’d I miss that?

      • dingle

        Occupational hazard.

        • art thiel

          I’m finished with my 21 lashes.

  • notaboomer

    but what about the hookers?

    • Pixdawg13

      They go to the winners.

    • art thiel

      Keep your private passions private.

  • MrPrimeMinister

    So right Art. Those same people who couldn’t give a rip about who just might be our next Presdient, are seen pissing and moaning about “State’s” 3 seed when it clearly and obviously should have gotten the 2 seed.

    • art thiel

      Need to have a bracket for the presidential field. People would care.

  • Jamo57

    I’m going to add two to your quite valid list of national pastimes:
    -Social Media

    In traveling to various cities it seems that our economy is made up almost entirely of restaurants and retail stores.

    • art thiel

      I find eating is fairly essential. Dining out, perhaps not. And soon enough, you won’t see the term social media, because it will be just . . . life.

      Regarding your tourney experience, I think you’ll find it widespread, if people are honest about it.

      • Jamo57

        Our soaring obesity rates, hot dog eating contests, and shows like “Man vs. Food” have moved beyond the essential. LOL In any event those 19″ seats at the remodeled key would be laughable. :-)

  • jafabian

    Two things on my bucket list: see the M’s in the World Series and the UW men’s basketball team in the Final Four.

    • art thiel

      Next year for both.

      • 1coolguy

        Obvious sarcasm for those who choked.

    • 1coolguy

      I hope you’re under 20.

      • jafabian

        I happily removed the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl off the list. People used to think they’d never win it all.

    • notaboomer

      not really how bucket lists work.

  • The Cane

    “The only people who can’t gamble on it, nor make enough money off it to
    shop even for socks, are the participants, 99.8 percent of whom will not
    translate their experiences into careers in pro ball.”

    Yes, but retaining the plantation-like schema of the whole apparatus brings a certain comfort in familiarity. Furthermore, they are getting one SMALL thing in today’s world, a free college education, something that many are willing these days to mortgage the rest of their lives for.

    • art thiel

      Yes, there is a certain genteel Southern charm to watching over the sharecroppers.

      But your reference to a small thing is smaller than you think. One, or even two, years is not a college education. And even finishing four years doesn’t count for much when your sport takes up a 40-hour work week. Don’t confuse graduation with education.

      • 1coolguy

        The long hours don’t seem to stunt the crew team!

        • art thiel

          When’s the last professional crew race you attended?

      • Jeff Shope

        still costs hundreds of thousands the rest of us had to pay for. Sorry don’t feel sorry for college athletes even the slightest.

        • Comrade Suge

          How dumb are you? Athletes help generate money FOR the school. People like you? You don’t offer much, you get more from the school than they get from you. It’s called basic economics.

          • art thiel

            The athletes are being exploited because there is insufficient compensation for their effort and sacrifice. It’s the system, not the players.

          • 1coolguy

            I beg to differ – There are very, very few athletes at a University who realistically believe they will play professionally. Those athletes, including my crew member son, are very happy to be part of a team and participate in a sport they love.
            Softball, baseball, crew, golf, tennis, track: these sports are played for the love of the game by 99% of the men and women in those programs. As to football and basketball, of the combined 100+ on these teams, how many play in the pros – 10%?
            So I prefer to talk about REALITY, and not get hung up on the vast minority of college athletes.
            I suggest the athletic department publish each year how many total athletes participate and how many move onto the pro level. It would be a very valuable read for 99% of those who do not understand why kids play sports.

  • 1coolguy

    ” fearing they will be seen as an outcast, in the manner of a virgin in the Louisville basketball program.”
    WHOA Art – you nailed it!

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    • art thiel

      Rick Pitino is great copy.

  • phil2bin

    You’re being too reductive, and avoiding why people have any interest in college sports. I know it seems logical in the dispassionate light of programs, players, coaches and outcomes, especially when it’s been a long time since you’ve had a dog in the hunt. But I think you err if you deny the college fan’s passions. We all know that, after the tournament, talent and physical prowess will determine a prospect’s success in the League. But for a few weeks, other chemical resonance might emerge, and legends may be written. But for generations, the outcome may not be as important as the experience:

    • art thiel

      Actually, the passions for the game are obvious and well-chronicled. I’m not denying them. I was trying to point out the less obvious, which is the lure of the bracket and a gambling victory is why many casual followers are attracted to three weeks of hoops mayhem rather than allegiance to school or sport.