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Basketball fans win when underdogs prevail in March

BY Robert Pursell  March 21, 2014 at 4:28 PM EST
It was the perfect Cinderalla story: 15-seed Hampton upset 2-seed Iowa State in 2001, The image that lives on from that game is Hampton coach Steve Merfeld being victoriously lifted by a player. Photo by Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

It was the perfect Cinderalla story: 15-seed Hampton upset 2-seed Iowa State in 2001, The image that lives on from that game is Hampton coach Steve Merfeld being victoriously lifted by a player. Photo by Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Raise your hand if you have ever filled out a bracket for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. Now keep them up if you’ve ever torn it up after watching an unheard-of university (Mercer?) ruin your picks.

It’s OK to admit to it. It’s all just part of the beautiful chaos that is March Madness. But what might surprise you is just how close this yearly national hysteria came to being quashed.

If you’re reading this and live in the United States, you are probably well aware of March Madness. The NCAA said that in 2011 more than 176 million people tuned into the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament at some point; that’s about 56 percent of Americans. Last year, each game of the tournament averaged 10.7 million viewers. The championship game between the University of Michigan and the University of Louisville earned about 23.4 million viewers.

That’s the audience. And now the money: The FBI estimates that more than $2.5 billion is illegally wagered annually on March Madness. All of those $5 buy-ins at your office or community pool add up. Playing on the popularity of those pools, Warren Buffet offered up $1 billion to anyone who picks a perfect bracket this year.

While the chance for making money might sound well and good to you and the rest of your pool, the consequences for businesses across the nation are far less profitable. The outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas calculated that $1.2 billion dollars in potential revenue is lost by businesses across the country for every hour employees spend watching the games (which, with the advent of free streaming of every NCAA game online, has grown exponentially).

Underdog madness: 14th-seeded Mercers pulls off the upset over 3rd-seeded Duke on the second day of NCAA men's basketball tournament action. Photo by Corey Lowenstein/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT

Underdog madness: 14th-seeded Mercer pulled off the upset over 3rd-seeded Duke on the second day of tournament play. Photo by Corey Lowenstein/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT

Spectating the tournament has become a national pastime, with the names of “Cinderella” teams etched into the national conscience for years to come. Before the 2010 tournament, you probably could have counted the number of your friends on one hand who knew about Butler University, and that’s being generous. With two championship game appearances, not so anymore. Thursday night 12-seed North Dakota State upset 5-seed Oklahoma, busting millions of brackets, while simultaneously becoming the most famous non-Coen brothers-related export from Fargo, N.D.

But if not for a game some 25 years ago that wasn’t even supposed to be televised, teams like Davidson and Northern Iowa may never have gotten the chance to become national sweethearts, when mounting pressures from the NCAA to remove little-known schools from the tournament could have ended the madness before it really began.

In his recent Sports Illustrated article “The Game That Saved March Madness,” Sean Gregory teamed up with Alexander Wolff to tell the story of how an electrifying game in 1989 between the top-seeded Georgetown Hoyas and 16th-seeded Princeton Tigers made March Madness the phenomenon it is today.

Gregory, a former self-described “benchwarmer” on later Princeton teams, sat down to talk about how that one game helped preserve the tournament, while paving the way for schools like the Valparaiso Crusaders and the North Dakota State Bisons to make their way into the public lexicon.

NEWSHOUR: Did this game really save March Madness? Isn’t that a bit of an oversimplification?

SEAN GREGORY: We wrote that headline because it speaks to how different the tournament is today versus where it was back then. Back in 1989, before the Princeton-Georgetown game, the first round games were only broadcast on ESPN, which was still a very young network in barely half of American households. The first-round games didn’t really get the mass exposure they do today back then.

And at the same time you had this movement amongst the NCAA leadership saying, “Why are we letting in these smaller conference champions into this event? Half of them are getting blown out; there are 64 teams, so logically shouldn’t the 64 best teams be in it?” The NCAA was saying, why shouldn’t the sixth best ACC team have a spot instead of the Patriot League champ? Because on paper, if say, Washington State was the eighth best team in the Pac 10, on paper they would probably be favored to beat the champion of the Patriot or Ivy league, so there was this argument of, “Hey, wait a second, why do we have these automatic bids to these no-name schools?”

Now it didn’t get that extreme to where they were ready to get rid of all the smaller teams, but what was being hatched on paper was this plan that could’ve been the start of a real movement to locking out even more small conference teams. The idea was always for the 30 automatic bids to go to conference champions, but looking forward into ‘91 and ‘92, they were afraid of constant conference proliferation with all these new conferences popping up seemingly overnight.

So they said enough was enough, we are going to pick the 30 best conferences on Selection Sunday, and even if you won your conference tournament you could potentially get shut out. So what would’ve happened was those bubble conference tournaments like the MEAC (the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference), the tournament championships could’ve ultimately meant nothing if a committee decided not to include you. So that would’ve taken all the fun away from these smaller tournaments, where you see students at small school like George Mason or UC Santa Cruz having an absolute blast.

And on the other side, you had the idea of basing it on a conference’s previous year success. So that could’ve meant theoretically that if a team in the Patriot League went undefeated and was a top team in the country, they could have been shut out from the big dance because their conference the year before performed poorly. So what this game helped do was convince the NCAA brass that everyone should be allowed in. After Princeton almost knocked off the giant of Georgetown, the NCAA changed their course and said, “Everybody has a chance to get in.” Now they’re expanding it even further with all the play-in games past just the 16 seeds; just the other night we saw an overtime game from two big-time schools, Iowa and Tennessee, in a play-in game for the 11-seed that was an absolute romp.

NEWSHOUR: Let’s talk about the money aspect. CBS paid $1 billion shortly after this game to retain the tournament for seven years, and has now signed a 14-year $10.8 billion contract (which is up in 2024). How has this game affected the profitability of NCAA basketball on the whole as a business?

SEAN GREGORY: After the Princeton-Georgetown game, CBS bought the exclusive rights to the first round games. Basically this game got them saying, “We should be showing these games.” Now I wouldn’t say the Princeton game is the only reason they bought the rights to the whole tourney, but I would say it’s a major reason for the decision, and that decision really helped make March Madness this shared American cultural experience it is today. As I said prior to that, it was on this ESPN network that wasn’t that widespread. So now all these games are on national television, and I remember one of the first years they did this, it was a snow day and I was home from school, and I’m sitting at home saying, “Are you kidding me? I can watch six games today? You’re telling me I can watch basketball from noon to midnight?” It was like heaven. And now we have the whole cultural aspect: the office pools, the betting, the watch parties. Would CBS have bought the rites without Princeton-Georgetown? Maybe. But that game was a spark. That game helped the NCAA sell the brand.

NEWSHOUR: What has the benefit been for the smaller programs?

SEAN GREGORY: Beyond your conference and school getting a nice check if you make the tournament, your school gets incredible exposure. You know, people look through the office bracket and see, “George Mason, who are they?” But now they’re on your radar and in your brain. Or, the flip side of that, is some guy in the office sees his small alma mater is in the tournament, let’s say VCU, and you get the whole pride and nostalgia that goes with it. All of this leads to these magical moments.

There is the monetary aspect of the games; an old MEAC commissioner famously said “shoulder pads cost as much in the MEAC as they do in the Big 10.” But more importantly you get the memories and the moments. Not to be too sentimental about it, but the MEAC and the SWAC, which are two historically black conferences, were on the verge of not getting bids because ultimately, they weren’t that competitive. Well, the Georgetown-Princeton game happens and it keeps them alive. So then in 2001, you have Hampton, a MEAC school, beating Iowa State in the first round. And there’s this lasting image of the Hampton coach (Steve Merfeld) being lifted off the floor by one of his players with his feet dangling. And you look at Merfeld and his face is pure elation — and again, not to get too poetic, but that image is this great thing that will live on forever in time. And that might not happen if the Princeton game doesn’t happen.

there have been studies about how this has bolstered schools with enrollment and popularity. For example I know that following Butler’s two miracle runs to the championship (in 2010 and 2011, when they were a 5 and an 8-seed, respectively) their applications increased exponentially. Now they’re this very high profile school that previously nobody knew about. It’s sculpting the face of colleges across America. There are plenty of examples. This is one of the main reasons universities argue now to keep their sports programs because they are the front porch to the university.

NEWSHOUR: Where would you see the NCAA tournament without this game?

SEAN GREGORY: It’s hard to say some other game wouldn’t have come along and had the same effect, but without this game maybe it delays the process. Without that magical moment for little schools, that momentum to cut out the small programs would’ve carried at the NCAA. I think we got to where we are quicker and more powerfully because of this game.