It's Madness! How One Tournament Transformed a Sport
Every March there's something in the atmosphere in America as the days grow longer and warmer when people come outside by the thousands to enjoy the rites of spring. You hear the sounds of rubber hitting wood, the swish of leather meeting nylon, a shrill whistling noise piercing the spring air, and shouts of loyal fans shouting at an orange ball in the sky. These are the sounds of a special kind of madness in America otherwise known as March Madness. The annual NCAA basketball tournament didn't used to be this maddening, but the month-long sporting event rose in popularity over several decades to become one of America's favorite pastimes.
March Madness traces its roots back to 1938 when the National Invitation Tournament brought six teams to play at Madison Square Garden for the first-ever postseason basketball tournament in history. Temple defeated Colorado 60 to 36 to earn the title of national champions. The NCAA followed the NIT a year later with its own postseason tournament, this one with eight teams in Evanston, Illinois. Oregon won the inaugural NCAA college basketball tournament with a finals victory over Ohio State by a score of 46 to 33. Ironically, Long Island University passed on the chance to hoist the NCAA trophy by opting to play in the NIT. At the time, many schools considered the NIT more prestigious.
These initial tournaments started small simply because the sport of college basketball was still relatively new, and travel for teams wasn't as easy as today. When more colleges added basketball programs, March Madness became more prominent. Interest in the tournament gathered steam in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the John Wooden era brought UCLA an unprecedented 10 national championships in 12 years. Wooden's teams didn't have to win six games in a row to take home the title. The tournament had 22 to 25 teams during the 1950s and 1960s, and Wooden's final title in 1975 saw the first 32-team field in NCAA history. The favorites of the '75 tournament needed overtime in two games as they fended off several underdogs.
Underdogs in the NCAA tournament are what make March Madness special. The David-versus-Goliath matchups intrigue pundits, fans, statisticians, bracketologists and gamblers. Perhaps the greatest upset in history occurred in the 1983 title game when Jim Valvano's North Caroline State, seeded sixth and losers of 10 regular-season games, beat the University of Houston by a score of 54 to 52. Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, both future NBA players, anchored UH's 25-game winning streak it took into the tournament. NC State held Drexler to four points over 25 minutes, but everyone remembers Lorenzo Charles catching Dereck Whittenburg’s desperation heave and dunking it at the buzzer followed by Jimmy V's mad scramble to hug someone. Cinderella's slipper went to other teams following that momentous year.
Two years after NC State's heroics, eighth-seeded Villanova upset John Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas in another two-point thriller, this one 66 to 64. 'Nova upset a one seed in the round of 32 (Michigan) and then a pair of two seeds (North Carolina and Memphis) just to get to the title game. Thompson's squad had already beaten Villanova twice that year in conference play. Upsets aren't just for the later stages of the tournament. As of 2017, eight 15 seeds have upset two seeds in the NCAA tournament since the 64-team format started in 1985. The first, happening in 1991, featured the Richmond Spiders beating Syracuse 73 to 69. In 2012, two 15 seeds fell on the same day in the early stages of the tournament.
Some lower seeds progressed all the way to the Final Four. Three 11 seeds made it to the Final Four from 1986 to 2016, with LSU as the first team to do so. George Mason equaled the feat in 2006, and Virginia Commonwealth made the Final Four in 2011. The lowest seed to win it all was the 1985 Villanova Wildcats. So far, at least in 2017, no 16 seed has ever defeated a one seed in the first round of March Madness. As the drama of each tournament grew bigger each year, so did the television coverage. NBC started putting games on TV in 1969, and then CBS took over this spectacle in 1991 much to the joy advertisers.
Thanks to huge upsets, dynasties, big-name players and modern television, there's one more sound to hear during March Madness. It's the cha-ching of money going to several media outlets, host cities, participating schools and office pool winners. Over an eight-year contract that runs until 2032, CBS gave the NCAA $8.8 billion for the rights to broadcast every game. Everyone wants a piece of that action thanks to online bracket challenges, office pools, pundits and online publications that give their take on who should win it all. March Madness represents a fan-tastic opportunity for online publications to earn greater advertising revenue with bracketology, challenges for casual fans and insider tips for winning office pools.
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