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Dateline: March Madness

For the rest of this month, many Americans will suffer from what is called March Madness. That is the nickname for the frenzy surrounding both the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association Men's and Women's Basketball tournaments taking place in several cities across the United States. Many Americans place friendly bets on the tournament in office pools and they'll stay up late into the night to watch the last second of the last game of that evening's telecast.

In this March Madness edition of Dateline, Dave Arlington examines the popularity of the NCAA college basketball tournament, as well as the problems of the sport that are lost in the Madness of March.

The men's tourney is in full swing beginning Thursday, two days after the number of teams vying for the national collegiate title was reduced from 65 to 64. The women begin Friday. Only 32 colleges will remain in contention by the end of this weekend. Sixteen schools will be left after next weekend. Then the tournaments move on to what is called the Final Four. And, ultimately, the championship games, March 31 for the women, April first for the men. The appeal of March Madness begins with the games, themselves, in which a team can go from defeat to victory in the final 2.1 seconds of overtime.

Fans anticipate last-second heroics every year. And the tournament's media coordinator, Jim Marchiony, says the excitement of the games is heightened by the connection so many viewers have to schools they once attended.

Marchiony: "So it is very easy to get caught up in this. And in the board rooms of America on Monday morning, you can just see, sitting down before the 9 o'clock staff meeting, you know: 'Oh, my alma mater whipped your alma mater.' And it just grows from there."

VOA: You might think this first weekend might be the least interesting, because you do have little-known teams that are 20 and 30-point underdogs in their first games. But isn't it just the opposite that fans are thirsting to find that amazing upset that lets a team from a tiny conference continue into the round of 32 and maybe even 16?

Marchiony: "There is nothing like a David-and-Goliath match-up in the NCAA tournament to get the fans' excitement going. Once an underdog team proves that it belongs, that crowd no matter where you are gets behind that relatively unknown team and creates a very, very special atmosphere inside the arena."

VOA: So how is the routine for millions of Americans going to be changing over the next 19 days?

Marchiony: "People change their schedules in March for this tournament. And you've got the added factor of the Internet, where people can follow at work and at home what's going on in every single game almost minute-by-minute. Probably somewhere between 130 million and 200 million. You know, those figures may be low, because this is the one of those events where you almost never watch it alone. You have friends over. You have parties, viewing parties, to watch it. So it's very difficult to know how many people are watching."

VOA: It's also hard to ignore how many people are betting. I mean, there is so much money being wagered on these games, in office pools that are, technically, illegal and at on-line gambling sites. You can even find point spreads for the games printed in mainstream newspapers. What does the NCAA think about all this money being bet on, basically, a bunch of kids?

Marchiony: "It bothers the NCAA very much. It is the one thing that can bring down college sports. The college presidents and athletic directors and coaches are very, very concerned about the influence of gambling and the damage it can do to college sports."

How much wagering goes on during the NCAA tournament? The only place in America to put down a legal bet is in the western state of Nevada. Joe Lupo, manager of the Sports Book at the Stardust Resort and Casino in Las Vegas estimates that $60 million to $70 million may change hands in his city. And he says that may represent only two percent of the total betting across the country. Mr. Lupo says there's nothing like the atmosphere inside his facility during the opening weekend of the tournament as gamblers make their wagers while watching several games simultaneously on television.

"It's electric. It's packed... the same group of people from morning til night, you know, eating hot dogs and drinking beer, and watching the ball drop til the very last second," he said. "There's so much energy and excitement. You just feed off that. We'll have all four games up. We have multiple big screens here at the book. And it's the biggest four days we have, the first four days, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday."

Some critics say the tournament has become such a big attraction because of the wagering, and not due to the sport itself. They say millions of Americans follow the games mainly because they need to learn how their bets turn out. Smith College Professor Andrew Zimbalist is the author of several books on sports economics, including a recent look at college athletes titled Unpaid Professionals. To him, what happens every March seems very much like madness.

Zimbalist: "Oh, I'm always perplexed. It's quite strange to me as a college professor that college becomes a news item about basketball teams rather than about the more exciting, in my view, intellectual and scientific projects that are going on at American universities. Generally speaking, the schools that put the most resources into their athletic programs are looking for athletic prominence because they don't have anything else to commend. It comes back and infects a large part of the academic life at many, many schools. The student body becomes actually more involved with the athletic success of the men's basketball team or the men's football team. They're celebrating on weekends and they're celebrating throughout the week. Universities are turning into seven-day-a-week party schools."

VOA: At the same time, don't many Americans who follow college sports actually believe that the athletic program helps to pay the bills for academic programs at universities and, therefore, are actually promoting the educational responsibilities of these schools?

Zimbalist: "I think, insofar as Americans think about that, there is a generalized belief that they help finance the academic mission of a school. The opposite is true. Out of 973 schools in the NCAA, there might be a dozen every year that actually have a surplus in their athletics program. All of the rest of them run a deficit. And, where they've made an enormous investment, now it becomes more important than ever to win. So they go out and they find a coach whom they think will take them to the Final Four and they pay the coach $1.5 million. And they get new training facilities. If some schools in the conference do it, then other schools feel like they have to do it. And you have an arms race, all chasing after the Holy Grail of a black bottom line in the athletics program. And so far it hasn't really paid off."

VOA: Billions of dollars, though, are changing hands. And it's all built around some 18-to-22-year-old kids who are providing the entertainment. But they're not getting any of the money.

Zimbalist: "They're not getting money directly, that's right. Of course, they get free-ride scholarships. At some schools it might be worth $30,000, $32,000 a year... at other schools it's worth less."

VOA: But only year-to-year and if they get injured, that's it for their college education.

Zimbalist: "Absolutely. I'm not justifying it. But it's important to acknowledge they do get that. Now, from the standpoint of the star players on the football team or the men's basketball team, who are probably generating 500 thousand to a million dollars a year; to get 30 thousand dollars worth of free education and room and board when more than half of them don't graduate anyway…is a very poor remuneration."

VOA: I've heard so much talk the past couple of years of so-called pay-for-play, something that would actually professionalize some college sports. Why is this idea of actually paying some college athletes gaining support?

Zimbalist: "You know, one of the reasons is the six-billion-dollar, 11-year contract with CBS that the NCAA signed to cover the March tournament beginning in 2003. People naturally begin to raise their eyebrows and say, 'Now, wait a minute…how can there be six billion dollars on the table, and we're not paying a cent to the athletes?'"

Smith College Economics Professor Andrew Zimbalist says pay-for-play should be tried in an effort to reform college athletics. He says either basketball and football could become separate business entities on campus or else colleges could hire a limited number of athletes, say, five of the 13 basketball players, who would get modest salaries but would not be studying for college degrees. But Mr. Zimbalist warns that "the obstacles to serious reform are formidable", especially when there is such a fury of excitement over these college games that reduce 65 teams to just a single winner.