Home > Culture, Sports > March Madness: Corporate Spectacle and Controlled Cultural Insanity

March Madness: Corporate Spectacle and Controlled Cultural Insanity

As we stumble past the ides of March for one more year, the calendar implies one major thing for sports fans of a certain stripe. The U.S. men’s college basketball championship tournament, popularly known as NCAA March Madness, is set to commence once more. Terms like “Cinderella” and “bracketology” and “Upset City” are being dusted off for another several thousand uses. The hoary old class-tinged dichotomies of power-conference giants versus plucky mid-majors have erected themselves once again (and are especially vehement this year, with once-underdogs Gonzaga receiving a #1 seed as one of the tournament top 4 squads). And on occasion, someone even has the temerity to suggest that the “amateur” college players should perhaps get a cut of the massive television and merchandising profits the NCAA earns with its championship tournament.

But let’s leave aside yearly roster specifics and financial grievances, bracket-filling-in and office-pooling, and get down to brass tacks about what makes March Madness quite possibly the greatest annual sporting event on the planet. The reason the tournament tends to lower nationwide productivity in American workplaces for its first four-day weekend (though perhaps not as much as usually stated) is that it is the most purely, viscerally entertaining showcase spectacle for not only the sport of basketball, but maybe for any American sport. This is not to say that March Madness is the world’s greatest sporting event, or the even the highest-level competition in its given sport (give the NBA Finals that much as least).

No, what makes it special is that, more than any other sporting extravaganza (even more than the Olympics or the World Cup), the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament demands and responds to frenzied crowd cries of “Mach schau, mach schau!” The first weekend, comprising the opening and second rounds of the tournament and eventually reducing 68 competing schools’ teams to only 16, is relentless and overwhelming in its roundball drama, at least by reputation and often in reality too. The games run all day and night with naught but a brief afternoon break for supper and evening news, a cascade of dunks and three-pointers and blocks and dribble penetration that leaves a dedicated watcher dizzy and exhausting.

Yes, indeed. Rise… to buy overpriced sneakers.

It’s very tough to be a dedicated watcher in the work-a-day world, but even a brief escape into the realm of buzzer-beating jump shots, court-rushing teammates, and dejected opponents is exhilarating. Much is made of this dense concentration of drama (and avoiding mention of frequent early-round blowouts makes it seem all the greater), of agony and ecstasy and athletic prowess that makes sport an occasionally transcendent but just as often deeply human saga of unpredictable narrative and impressive spectacle.

Never mind that the truly important games don’t even happen until the second and especially third tournament weekend, where the teams are whittled down to the elite programs of future NBA stars, starters, and role players contending for the title. Even if the early games feature basketball of a lower quality (a charge that many NBA hegemons level at all of college ball), the sheer profusion of displays of the game tramples such objections time and again. March Madness features so much basketball that it’s impossible not to come across fine examples of the craft, even in small sample sizes.

March Madness, we can say, contains multitudes. Indeed, it feels as if the tournament’s mostly-irresistible appeal represents and summarizes not only what is great about basketball. It collapses all of sport’s notable characteristics into a focused and unforgiving beast of a competition that captivates just as it embodies all that is questionable about big-time corporate-supported athletic competition. The corporate sponsors and profit-swallowing university bodies rely on free labour, of course; as in college football, the echoes of slavery in a business where white men make millions off of the uncompensated physical effort of young black men are substantial. But they also activate the fundamental tribal allegiances and simmering resentments that animate all sports fandom in a potent way, via scholastic alumni loyalties. Even if one does not have a rooting interest in an alma mater or a rival school, the tournament allows for new favourites to be chosen, as teams that make it further into the competition gain followers gradually, like a snowballing Twitter account.

Whether looked at cynically or with wonderment or with some balanced middle-ground approach, March Madness is clearly an impressive and populist spectacle that encompasses hints of cultural attitudes and practices in a sporting context. But its most miraculous achievement is how little these calculi matter once the ball is tipped and the Madness sets in. However widespread the tournament’s appeal is or isn’t, one thing about it is clear: its Madness is ours, encouraging, reflecting, and complicating our views of it as it spirals into its particular strain of controlled athletic insanity. That’s what makes the tournament great, and keeps us fascinated.

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Categories: Culture, Sports

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