Too Much Madness?

The NCAA tournament is America’s favorite championship because, more than any other sports league, NCAA Division I basketball lets armchair point guards be a part of the action.

Forget that I can’t make a three pointer without a running start.  Being a part of March Madness is as simple as filling out a bracket and spending the first two weekends of the tournament following the action, rooting for underdogs, and enjoying (or bemoaning) the upsets.  Most brackets are destroyed by the time the Sweet Sixteen rolls around, but it never seems to matter.  We still want to participate.

This is the appeal of the NCAA Tournament, and it is exactly why the new 68-team format is so dangerous.

The all-important Tournament Bracket has been the basis for office pools and friendly wagers for years.  For the three days after Selection Sunday leading up to the tournament, NCAA basketball owned the water cooler, and bracket advice ruled ESPN and the sports talk radio airwaves.  Even the addition of the single play-in game for one of the just-happy-to-be-here 16 seeds didn’t affect the format too much.

Creating play-in games for the 16 seeds in each brackets might have been a passable way to get to 68 teams.  The problem comes from where the play-in games are in the bracket, this year deciding two 16 seeds, an 11 seed and a 12 seed.  The 12 seeds are famously ripe ground for upsets, but that depends on the matchup.  By sprinkling the play-ins throughout the seeds, the NCAA made it very difficult to fill out a bracket before Wednesday or Thursday, when the final field of 64 was determined and most brackets were due.

People now have less time to put together a bracket.  More important, there’s less time to organize an office pool, distribute brackets, and harass participants for entry fees.

Cynics will say the NCAA’s Tournament expansion is all about money – charging tickets and television fees for extra games on top of an already lucrative month-long event – as well as bringing more teams into the fold.  Capping the number of teams, even at the comically large number of 64 or 65, would seem to be a purist’s argument about retaining the integrity of competition.

But let’s make it cynical anyway.  If the appeal of March Madness lies in the participation of filling out brackets, why adopt a format which puts up barriers of entry to that?  If a 68-team tournament fails to generate the same appeal as a 64-team tournament, then the extra teams aren’t creating more money after all.  Even in college basketball, there’s a law of diminishing returns.

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