How March Became Madness: How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America

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The $ick Lie of Mar¢h Madne$$

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It’s that time of year again, sports fans. Time to break out the pail and the stool and start milking that billion-dollar cash cow called the NCAA men’s basketball tournament but universally known by its brand name — March Madness — along with its ever-growing herd of clichés, including The Dance, the bubble, Selection Sunday, bracketology, the office pool, one and done, Cinderella, the First Four, the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, and finally, mercifully, sometime in early April, the Final Four.

Along the way, since every last game of the tournament is now televised, we’ll get our fill of shrieking coaches, 40-minute games that drag on for more than two hours, players paved with tattoos who hang on the rim and weep on cue and sometimes manage to remind us, despite the increasingly long odds, that college basketball can still be a thing of spontaneous, unpredictable, crazy beauty.

We’ll also get squads of robotic cheerleaders straight out of the uncanny valley, adorable mascots in furry costumes, close-ups of fans in body paint, fans waving giant human-head cutouts, fans acting like they’re being electrocuted whenever they sense the hot red eye of a TV camera — all of it chopped up by a seemingly endless parade of commercials urging us to buy this or that brand of car, cell phone, fast food, insurance, soft drink, sneaker, credit card, or beer. During the championship game, advertisers will pay $1.5 million for 30 seconds of air time.

How did this come to pass? How did a beautiful game played by unpaid teenagers get turned into an advertising bonanza for corporate America? The short answer is: big money. In 2010, CBS and Turner Sports paid the National Collegiate Athletic Association $11.5 billion for the rights to broadcast the tournament for the next 14 years. The slightly longer answer is that stroke of evil genius that made the big money possible: the TV timeout.

Today there is a stoppage of play at the first whistle after the 16-, 12-, 8- and 4-minute marks of each 20-minute half in every televised college basketball game. The games stop cold, pure and simple, so that advertisers can pitch their wares. These TV timeouts, along with the five regular timeouts awarded to each team, destroy the essence of a game that used to be all about momentum and flow. The only flow that matters today is the cash flow.

I thought the TV timeout was a relatively recent abomination, but I was surprised to discover that basketball purists have been railing against it for nearly half a century.

On March 12, 1967, The New York Times sports page carried this headline: Coaches at N.I.T. Disturbed by TV Time-Outs During Play. The story reported that the televised National Invitational Tournament game between Providence and Memphis State at Madison Square Garden was interrupted 10 times by timeouts — eight of them called by a CBS employee who sat courtside and signaled to the referees when to stop and resume play so the network could air commercials. Providence coach Joe Mullaney was furious that Memphis State’s rally was given an unfair boost by the CBS-dictated timeouts. “Also,” the article noted, “each time-out lasted 75 seconds instead of 60.” The long slide down the slippery slope into the money pit had begun. As the Times writer so deftly put it:

College basketball rules give each team the right to call five time-outs during a 40-minute game. A basic element of strategy is proper use of the time-outs: some must be husbanded to set up plays in the closing seconds of a close game, others may be used to provide rest at a crucial moment or break the momentum of the opposition.

The eight TV timeouts during NCAA tournament games now routinely drag on for three minutes, while the halftime break has been stretched from 15 to 22 minutes. As a result, the games are robbed of flow, they last too long, and there’s no premium on fielding a deep bench because the starters get regular breathers while corporate America gets to sell stuff and the NCAA gets rich. The big loser is the game of college basketball.

So when exactly did the term “March Madness” enter the glossary of American sports clichés? That depends on who’s answering the question. Eddie Einhorn, who died on Feb. 24 at 80, was a key engineer of college basketball’s transformation from regional winter diversion into global televised spectacle. His telecast of the 1962 NCAA title game between Cincinnati and Ohio State was not seen outside of Ohio. This was not satisfactory for Eddie Einhorn. In his book How March Became Madness: How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America, Einhorn pegs the birth of the malady to a game on Jan. 20, 1968. Played before a crowd of 52,000 in the Houston Astrodome, it was the first college basketball game televised nationally in prime time. With millions watching on TV, Elvin Hayes and his Houston teammates ended the 47-game winning streak of mighty UCLA, led by Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Smelling money, NBC began broadcasting the NCAA tournament the following year.

In his book When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball, Seth Davis argues that the pivotal moment was the championship game on March 26, 1979, between Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson, and Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, a dream TV matchup between two charismatic stars that would generate the highest Nielsen rating of any basketball game ever played. “The game of basketball was about to change forever,” Davis writes in the strangely purplish yet bland style of the sportswriter. “The 1979 NCAA championship game helped catapult college basketball, and especially the NCAA tournament, into the national consciousness.”

That year’s NCAA tournament grossed more than $5 million in TV revenue. Today the take is more than $1 billion a year — 200 times as much. That kind of money can ruin just about anything, and the damage to college basketball goes far deeper than the insidious ways commerce has altered what happens on the court. Much darker is what happens behind the curtain, in the high-pressure world of recruiting “student-athletes,” of building a successful “program,” then staying on top. Elite coaches earn north of $6 million a year coaching unpaid players, and when the stakes are that high, sleaze is a virtual given.

This year, for instance, two of the game’s most revered coaches will be sitting out the NCAA tournament because of violations. Louisville’s Rick Pitino, the third highest-paid coach in the land, coach of national champions at Kentucky in 1996 and at Louisville in 2013, has been sidelined by the Louisville administration because one of his assistants paid sex workers and strippers to have sex with basketball recruits, players, and their fathers at dorm parties that ran for four years. Two of the sex workers were daughters of the madam who orchestrated the fun, Katina Powell, who wrote a damning book called Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen. Louisville basketball, it turns out, is truly a family affair. An investigation by the NCAA is continuing.

Southern Methodist University’s Larry Brown, who coached Kansas to the national championship in 1988, will also be watching the tournament at home this year. The NCAA banned SMU from postseason play and suspended Brown for nine games because one of his prize recruits, a McDonald’s All-American named Keith Frazier, had been admitted to the university even though he was academically unqualified, and then his grades were doctored to ensure his eligibility. When the scandal broke, Frazier left the team and transferred to North Texas.

“The tragedy,” Michael Powell wrote in The New York Times, “is that the adults in big-time high school and college basketball…exert far more energy trying to churn out victories than trying to provide an education. Young men like Frazier, who just three years ago was Brown’s top recruit, are collateral damage.”

This was not Larry Brown’s first brush with the NCAA sheriffs. Kansas was banned from postseason play in 1989 because Brown was caught on tape admitting to illegal cash payments, with assistants acting as bag men. At UCLA, Brown coached the team to the title game, only to have the tournament wins tossed out by the NCAA because Brown had fielded two players who were academically ineligible.

But repeat offenders like Larry Brown are aware that after the storm blows over, the money and the recruits will keep pouring in. Asked if the sanctions had damaged his recruiting efforts, Brown replied, “Not one bit. I think it’s only helping.”

There may be something even more insidious about March Madness than the money and the cynical treatment of “student-athletes” like Keith Frazier. Maybe the most insidious thing is the carefully nurtured lie that the tournament is a wide-open affair, an equal-opportunity nationwide free-for-all in which all 68 teams have a legitimate shot at the title. This is another piece of the bedrock American myth that says anyone can get rich, anyone can become president, even Cinderellas make it to the dance. Nonsense. There are 16 seeds in each of the four regions in the tournament, and the lowest seed ever to win it all was #8 Villanova in 1985, which is another way of saying that far fewer than half of the teams have a realistic chance of winning the title. Of course some players and coaches are thrilled just to get a chance to appear briefly on the big stage, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And every once in a long while there are pleasant surprises, such as when Steph Curry and his unheralded Davidson teammates, a #13 seed, made a scintillating run to the round of eight in 2008. But let’s not lose sight of the facts that schools that make the tournament earn $1.67 million even if they never win a game, and a run to the Final Four brings in the handsome sum of $8.3 million.

Simply put, in college basketball, as in the rest of American life, there are the haves and the have-nots, the blue-bloods and the also-rans. The rich will keep getting richer and everyone else will keep buying into the delusion that they can get rich too — even though the deck is rigorously stacked against them. As Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio put it, “We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves.” As if. Elite programs have the leverage — the prestige, the facilities, the money, the fans, and, yes, the TV exposure — that guarantees they will continue to attract the top talent. Meanwhile, March Madness will continue to feed the fantasy among American kids that they’re destined for a big-time college team and its natural payoff, a high-paying berth in the NBA. Many of those young dreamers will wind up like Keith Frazier, collateral damage who bought into the myth of the cash cow and found out the hard way that big money and college sports are a toxic mix.

So be it. Time to crack open a beer, turn on the tube, and let the games begin. Sure, I’ll watch the final minutes of a few games this year because I’ve been playing basketball as long as I’ve been walking upright and I think the game is one of mankind’s few truly beautiful creations. In the bursts of action between the endless commercial breaks, I’ll get reminded, once again, that many of the kids who play the game today are insanely talented. Too bad they’re being so shamelessly exploited.

Image Credit: Flickr/Håkan Dahlström.

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