By Jim McCarthy Mar 19, 2012 0 comments

Why People Love the NCAA Tournament

Here’s the first clue: it sure as hell isn’t because they love college basketball.

In fact, college basketball is in crisis.  The best players go to the NBA after a year in college, which creates a bizarre “rent-a-player” phenomenon for these schools, wherein they bust their tails to get a superstar athlete to come to their school, but just for their freshman year.

And then they’re gone, one and done.  Anybody who sticks around for four years is very clearly a notch below the college leavers.  The result is that college ball isn’t what it used to be, and that’s why the audience for it is aging, shrinking, and you and I ignore it all season long.

Until March, when the “Madness” sets in.

But what’s the Madness all about?  A tournament that allows a lot of teams a chance to win it all, even if they were only just a shade better than average during the year.  There are those first couple of days of the tournament, when there are 32 games happening simultaneously, pitting the underdogs against the favorites, when inevitably one or two of the big boys loses.  It’s a Cinderella story, and you know it’s going to happen.  You just don’t know when and where.

So why do people love it?  Three thoughts:

1.  The structure.  A big, straightforward tournament where lots of would-be champions enter the arena but only one leaves.  It’s like some fairy tale where a million princes try to win the princess’s hand in marriage and all but one is eaten by the dragon.

2. The upsets.  People love watching underdogs win.  The bigger the better.  It’s an American ideal that anybody can win against anybody under just the right conditions, even if in reality the big guys usually win.  With so many games, though, at least one juicy upset is bound to happen and people are beside themselves waiting for it.  This year, we had several.

3.  It’s social.  People who don’t even follow college basketball fill out a bracket and play against their friends and co-workers.  And then people gab about it for two weeks.  and then it’s over and on to the next thing.  You don’t even have to pretend to know who the players are.

Surely, there are more, but those three are enough to make this one of the most exciting times in the sports calendar.  What can marketers in other live entertainment genres learn from it?

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