A Method to the Madness

When I was teaching English in France a couple of years ago, I spent a large amount of effort trying to get my new European friends to fill out brackets for the 2009 NCAA Tournament. Not surprisingly, it was an uphill battle explaining the role of college sports in our country and why March Madness is one of the most exciting two weeks in sports in the world. An unanswerable question kept arising: “Yes, that’s all well and good. But why should I care?” I’d try and answer just how exciting it was to see whether your picks came off, but they weren’t convinced. It occurred to me frequently the extent of the March Madness marketing success. Think about it: in empirical terms, is there another event in American sport which pushes as many casual sports fans into a very niche role (that of the stat nerd, the fantasy geek looking up records and turnover differential)? 5 million people fill out brackets on ESPN.com; many more through Facebook, Yahoo, or other sites (hell, even the President does an annual one). Imagine if we could harness forces that make March Madness March Madness and apply them to America’s relationship to soccer?

OK. The Madness in March Madness comes from a few factors that allow it to become such an all-consuming event. For one, it’s the largest single-elimination tournament in the world. There’s no “oh, there’s always next week” or “better luck next time.” One loss, and put your jersey away for six months. Due to the large number of teams participating at the start, March Madness pulls a large demographic into its sphere. Students and alumni of 68 universities, most of whom will fill out brackets that show their team winning it all. A few weeks back, I wrote about the magic of the European-style sport system, one that could see any team out of six thousand eventually become crowned EPL champions. That same milieu is present in March Madness, just crammed into two weeks. When else could a Southern Mississippi or a St. Bonaventure have an opportunity to gain the highest seat in the land?

If March Madness can cause the preterite sports fan to begin worshiping the gods of college basketball statistics and probabilities, why can’t we approach the MLS Cup or the World Cup (or even the Champions League) with the same amount of excitement as we do March Madness?

In an article before last years March Madness, ESPN‘s Frank Deford draws an explicit parallel between March Madness and the World Cup:

“Likewise, while the soccer World Cup starts off with a round-robin, it really grabs the globe once single elimination begins. Our professional football is too brutal to have anything but one-game showdowns — but nothing is more popular. And do you remember last year when the U.S. and Canada played for the Olympic hockey gold medal — one game. Americans who didn’t know a hockey puck from a badminton birdie got hooked. One game, winner take all, losers walk.”

This comparison got me thinking: how can we utilize the general hysteria around March Madness to get Americans more excited about soccer (be it the MLS Cup, the World Cup, or the Champions League)? After thinking it over for 24 hours, I came up with a few recommendations:

1) Have each President/Prime Minister/other important elected official fill out a World Cup bracket each time it goes around. ESPN will feature each official (or a selected representative) giving the basis behind his or her picks. Should North Korea make WC 2014, a special bracket would need to be made to ensure North Korea got to the Final regardless.

2) Condense the US Open Cup, Champions League and FA Cup into a month. While largely impossible, imagine how cool it would be if four weeks out of the year, both the MLS and the EPL took a break from the regularly scheduled programming and the top 68 teams in both countries played a single-elimination tournament for the trophy.

3) Give the selection of the group stages of the Champions League a prime-time spot on ABC, followed by the debut of what should be their next big television hit. Also, American celebrity endorsers who are also soccer fans, like Tom Hanks, Will Ferrell, and Steve Nash.

4) Strike a deal between CBS and FIFA to allow free viewing of all UCL and World Cup matches on a legal online browser. Complete with a “Boss Button” that brings up a boring PowerPoint presentation. Wait, this should happen anyways.

5) Allow play-in games for the World Cup and the UCL for the highest ranking countries that didn’t make the World Cup final or UCL knock-out round. Ask the 2011 Virginia Commonwealth team–a lowly team which played their way in could make it all the way to the final song of the Big Dance.

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