Katherine DeClerq | Fulcrum Staff
SIXTY-FOUR TEAMS, ONE winner—how could you not watch this sporting phenomenon? Every year, the top college teams from the East, Mideast, West, and South come together for a massive three-week, single-elimination tournament known as March Madness. The winner of this tournament gets a gold-plated wooden National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship trophy and the prestige of holding the national title.
College football aside, the NCAA seems to revolve around March Madness and the hype it creates. But why is March Madness so popular in North America, and why does Canada simply tag along to the American sporting event, as opposed to creating one of their own? Finally, do we even want it?
American sports culture
The most notable difference between American and Canadian university life is the emphasis each institution puts on athletics. While tens of thousands of people squish into a basketball court or a football stadium to watch a university or college game in the United States, only a few hundred (a few thousand for football) Canadians are willing to go out and support their teams.
“I think a big part of it is in the culture,” explained Michel Bélanger, communications and media relations manager of Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS). “The Americans really follow not only college sport, but high school sport. It’s in their blood and DNA.”
Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for Nation Magazine and hosts Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius XM. He attributes the unique sports culture to the fact that colleges in the United States are considered the minor leagues for the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL), allowing universities and coaches to make a tremendous amount of money off student athletes.
“People choose the schools they go to on the basis of having a basketball team that they can cheer for and be excited about,” he explained in an interview with the Fulcrum. “And unfortunately, I would argue that in some schools it’s created a very outsized space in student life—it becomes the cultural, social, and economic centre of a campus, if not an entire region.”
Zirin attributes this sport culture to slanted educational priorities and scandals, such as that of Penn State.
“These things really play into each other,” Zirin said. “We’ve developed a system where, at times, it feels like a college is more of a minor league as opposed to an educational institution, and the mission becomes distorted.”
The mystery of March Madness
While the NCAA is popular in itself, March Madness adds a whole other layer to American sports. The event is watched around the world, with billions of dollars invested in the preparation and follow-through of the games.
Greg Gallagher, University of Ottawa Gee-Gees hoop broadcaster on SSN and hockey and hoop broadcaster on Rogers TV, explained the March Madness hype wasn’t built overnight. Through increased television coverage, the event transformed from a small college tournament to a North American affair.
“The NCAA has also done a solid job in marketing the ‘one-and-done’ aspect and the whole bracket business to such an extent that millions of Americans—I’d say the majority of whom don’t even follow college basketball—fill out brackets and make it bigger than it could ever be otherwise.”
Zirin agreed, explaining March Madness fills a unique spot in March between the NFL and the Major Baseball League seasons.
“It offers incredible opportunities for fan interaction, people fill out brackets for reasons that have nothing to do with sports,” he said. “Every year there are stories about how this is the worst week for labour productivity in the United States because people are spending so much time filling out brackets and discussing them.”
Athleticism versus athletic injustice
Dale Kris, U of O assistant coach of the men’s basketball team, is an avid NCAA fan and wishes Canada had more funds to spend on sports. He feels a large part of North America’s talent pool is in the NCAA because American schools invest a lot of money in sport programming and athletes get the opportunity to experience what some call the “big leagues.”
“I think most athletes who play in the NCAA tournament welcome the hype,” he said. “I don’t know many high-level athletes that don’t enjoy proving themselves on the biggest stage possible. The excitement and the atmosphere at NCAA college basketball games is really incredible.”
Canadian athletes would most likely welcome such excitement, but what are the repercussions?
While some may worship the United States’ emphasis on sports, Zirin points out the injustices within NCAA sport culture and how what can be seen as an amazing opportunity can also be considered simple merchandising.
“It can all be brought back to football,” he explained. “Because the NFL is so hegemonic … the program is really intense. By intense I mean if your team is good, then everybody gets paid, but if your team is bad, it can have a negative economic effect not only on the entire athletic department, but on the entire university.”
In order to build a successful athletic program in the U.S., universities have to invest in stadiums, gyms, weight rooms, and coaching salaries, yet none of the money is directed to the athlete’s pocket.
“It has created an unequal set-up where players are basically bought and sold to generate billions and billions of dollars—the March Madness TV contract alone is $10.8 billion and [athletes] don’t see a cent of their labours and are conditioned to see the set-up as just,” noted Zirin.
Bélanger agreed, explaining the trade-off between an athletic-based educational institution and an academic one can damage an athlete’s future off the court.
“The knock on the NCAA is, especially in basketball, kids play basketball for the school for one year and they are drafted,” he said. “There is so much money involved you don’t want to risk an injury or wait to finish school.
“I’ve seen studies of graduating rate of teams that participate in March Madness and graduation rate is horrible because a lot of guys are there just to play basketball,” Bélanger added.
Canadian hype, or lack thereof
“I think that Canadian universities could do a bit more to promote CIS sport; however, the reality of the situation is that the money available for sport and the talent level is not the same as in the NCAA, and without those things it is very difficult to attract the interest of sport fans,” explained Dale.
While Canadian universities will always retain their academic emphasis, there are ways to make CIS more popular, although maybe not to a March Madness level.
“I’m not sure a March Madness is necessarily the answer since our low number of teams doesn’t make it feasible,” said Gallagher. “The eight-team weekend draw is good as it stands, but the way to grow it still comes down to attracting the general public through consistently improving outreach efforts. It’s a snowball effect—once the average fans see the hype, they will want to see what it’s all about.
“I also think basketball should be the focus of the CIS, as it’s the peak of basketball talent in Canada, unlike hockey, which sees top talent go to junior clubs.”
Both Bélanger and Gallagher agree television and the media are key in promoting Canadian university sport.
“It was TV that made March Madness into what it is today,” explained Bélanger. “The exact same thing happened with the World Junior Hockey championships. It was pretty much TSN that made that tournament—when they jumped on board and decided it was going to be a big deal every year. Now they get millions and millions of viewership.
“I think our goal should be in between what we have now and what you see in the U.S.”
Like so many aspects of Canadian life, we see something bigger and flashier in the United States and we immediately say, “We want it.” While Canadian university athletics deserve more recognition and support from the community, perhaps moving toward an Americanized sport culture isn’t the way to go.