The World Cup may be more popular and the World Series may be a longer-standing tradition, but no game or series can compete on sheer excitement.
Let's get this out of the way up front: The NCAA is a terrible, broken system. Its honchos reap massive profits on the backs of unpaid athletes. It punishes students for their parents' minor offenses while turning a blind eye to alleged crimes as serious as sexual assault. I fully support blowing up the entire framework of college sports and starting from scratch.
But damn, does the NCAA know how to throw a party.
March Madness is the best sports event in the world. The World Cup may be more popular and the World Series may be a longer-standing tradition, but no game or series can compete on sheer excitement. In fact, I'll take it one step further: The NCAA tournament is the most exciting spectator event of any kind, anywhere. From the Super Bowl to the Oscars to South by Southwest, every competition and performance in the world should take a page from the March Madness book. Here, a handy guide to what every other event should learn from college basketball's triumph:
This isn't Little League—there's no need to include everyone. Two years ago, the NCAA flirted with expanding the postseason field to 96 teams before coming to their senses and opting for the meaningless alternative of adding four additional play-in teams. Right now, arguably qualified teams are left out, which is as it should be. Expanding the field to 96 would let in more mediocre teams from mediocre conferences, and who wants to see more Pac-12 teams play games?
Sadly, the general trend is moving toward inclusiveness at the expense of high-quality competition. Major League Baseball recently announced the addition of two more playoff teams starting in 2013. The Oscars now nominate as many as 10 movies for Best Picture, even if the field includes travesties like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Honors should be limited to deserving contenders.
Tighten the Time Frame:
The period between Selection Sunday and the NCAA championship game is just three weeks, a blink of an eye considering that includes 67 games. Die-hard fans get to watch 16 games today and another 16 tomorrow, followed by eight each Saturday and Sunday. This can feel overwhelming, but it's the single best way to prevent enthusiasm from dying out before the event runs its course.
Contrast this with most awards shows, which take place months after the nominees are announced. Or consider the pro basketball playoffs, which take a full two months. I love the NBA Finals, but I'm often weary of watching Kobe Bryant scream at refs by the time they roll around in early June. Speeding things up will keep everyone engaged.
My favorite part of last Sunday's selection show (other than the moment the Kentucky Wildcats were unveiled as the top overall seed, that is) came when selection committee chairman Jeff Hathaway, the former athletic director at the University of Connecticut, invited people to take issue with his group's picks for the 68 slots. "Part of the fun of it is the debate," he said, "the fact that people are going to sit there and say 'my team should be in, your team shouldn't have gotten in.'" It was the first time in years I've heard a sports league decision-maker demonstrate a true understanding of the fan experience. Fans will quibble with the choices no matter what (and yes, taking Iona instead of Drexel was a colossally bad call). We want something to get upset about—it makes us better fans. But making controversy part of the fun only works if the people in charge follow the next guideline.
Far too often, decision-makers for fan-supported events refuse to take questions about the process or results. The two best examples of this problematic tendency are college football's BCS committee, which refuses to address any of the very valid critiques of its irredeemably flawed system, and the Oscars voters, whose ranks of old white men are kept secret. This furthers a divide between the powers that be, who really should be nothing more than paid, knowledgeable fans, and the fans themselves.
Refreshingly, the NCAA tournament committee appears to be getting more transparent while its peers move in the opposite direction. On Sunday, Hathaway offered real insight into his group's deliberations and was open about the highest- and lowest-ranked 1 and 2 seeds. Of course, it doesn't really matter that Ohio State had a lock on its seeding while Missouri barely snuck onto the 2-line, but the fact that we know makes us feel like we're part of the process, not annoying interlopers to be kept out.
The NCAA tournament isn't perfect—it's undoubtedly not the best way to determine the best team in the land, small-conference teams get the shaft, and it can be tough to keep rooting for a team whose best players leave after a single year. But it remains the best competition of any genre out there, and unless the others make radical reforms, that's not going to change. Now, go watch.