The Super Bowl is, hands down, the biggest single sports event in this country every year, and probably the second-biggest on the planet behind only soccer’s World Cup.
The Super Bowl is so huge, in fact, that its reach and influence go far beyond that of just athletics. It is a national holiday celebrated not just by avid football fans whose mouths froth and eyes moisten as they gather at the kneeling rail and take in the sport’s holiest of days, but also by people with varying degrees of interest in the game, from none at all to only casual.
Lest they be left out in the cold – literally and figuratively, since the Super Bowl is played when many parts of the U.S. are experiencing their most frigid conditions of the year – they join the party just to see what all the commotion is about.
But in terms of sustained interest over an extended period of time rather than on only one day, nothing comes close to the NCAA men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments that began this week. From Selection Sunday for the men’s event and Selection Monday (women’s) to announce the 68-team fields, to the four play-in games in both tourneys, to the "second round" when the rest of the schools begin play and things really get rolling, to the Sweet 16, to the Elite Eight, to the Final Four, and finally to the national championship games, this three-week period is indeed what the name implies, "March Madness."
Anything and everything can, and usually does, happen, alerting everybody to the probability that what they’re witnessing will be special, and to the possibility that it may be even more than that – extraordinary, unique, jaw-dropping and captivating.
There are all kinds of ways of enjoying this festive season. You can just sit back and take it all in, you can enter one of those corporate-sponsored contests where, if your bracket is perfectly perfect, you win enough money to buy some small, Third World country, or you can spend a couple bucks to throw your hat in the ring on an office pool.
Because of the inevitable stunning upsets, especially early in the tourney, that make March Madness what it is, both contests – big and small – can be won by people who wouldn’t know what a basketball was even if it hit them in the head. They pick the winners by the school colors, how cool-sounding the nicknames are, whether they and their grandchildren have vacationed in the states where the schools are located, and if the head coach has hair or not and/or looks good while standing on the sideline in a suit and tie.
That’s much to the dismay of hardcore fans who stay up until 2 in the morning to watch all the West Coast games and broaden their knowledge.
Indeed, ignorance can be bliss when it comes to figuring out March Madness.
But the people who really make out like bandits are people like ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, who have built a cottage industry out of getting hired to predict, at various points of the regular season, what teams will – and won’t – make the tournaments and why. They list the last four teams that would get in if the field were to be picked at that particular moment, the first four teams that would be left out, the teams that are on the bubble, the teams that could be bubble-bursters and the teams whose head coaches ever took a bath in Mr. Bubble when they were kids.
People like Lunardi are called bracketologists and their field of expertise has been dubbed bracketology.
Folks, you can’t make this kind of stuff up.
And those of us who love the tournament wonder why our significant others, family members, neighbors and co-workers who enjoy the tournaments about as much as they would like to get a root canal, look at us like we’ve grown a third eye when we start waxing poetic about the unbridled joy that will ensue when a No. 16 seed finally beats a No. 1.
They think the last part of March Madness applies to us. We’re a little bit – or a lot – off.
But we think – no, actually, we know – that they’re missing a lot of fun, and in a world where fun is hard to find, deciding to follow the tournament isn’t madness at all. It’s a slam-dunk.