Mythbusters: March Madness does not represent college hoops
Setting are a huge part of college basketball's regular season
Catering to television has also hurt tournament's charm
At least three times a year, I get into a massive argument with one of my dim-witted friends, most of whom live in L.A. or Boston, about which is better -- NBA or NCAA basketball. They always point out that the best players in the world are in the NBA. I counter with the seemingly hard-to-grasp concept that basketball is about more than the simple summation of talent. After a nice back and forth, I inevitably throw out my reliable go-to line: college basketball is a culture; the NBA is a business. Zing!
But then, every March, the NCAA tournament rolls around and definitively refutes my culture vs. business argument. The very tournament that fronts as the fairest and most exciting way to end a basketball season also doubles as a raving cash cow that strips college basketball of its essential and resplendent amateur character.
During the regular season, settings play a large role in composing the unique nature of college basketball. The arenas actually take on personalities of their own. Buildings are known for being small, like Cameron Indoor Stadium, or big, like the Carrier Dome, or old, like the Palestra, or new, like John Paul Jones Arena, or cinematic, like Hinkle Fieldhouse, or sacred, like Allen Fieldhouse.
In the postseason, however, the NCAA exchanges these basketball temples for professional arenas, and then massive domes, as the tournament progresses. Little by little, the NCAA manages to turn the small and exceptional into the massive and bland. Consider this -- a large college basketball arena, like North Carolina's Dean Smith Center, seats almost 22,000 fans. By comparison, Ford Field, where this season's Final Four will be played, seats 80,000. For all you English majors, that means Ford Field has four times the capacity as the fifth-largest college basketball arena in the country!
Such massive venues might bring in more money, but they kill the amateur vibe. There is no intimacy between fans and players, and in some of the huge football arenas, not even a clear view of the game. Tickets for upper-deck seats at this year's Final Four can cost up to $200, which seems pricey considering ticketholders will also have to shell out $75 for a decent pair of binoculars just to see the ball. (Not to worry, though. The NCAA is erecting its own eight-sided video board, which will hang from the roof at center court and give all those fans who can't see the game something to look at.)
Beyond the size of the venues, the NCAA tournament misrepresents college basketball by minimizing each school's student section. Up until this season, there had been no designated student sections for any of the schools still competing in the Final Four. That meant if students wanted to watch their teams play, they had to buy a ticket like any other fan. But this season, in an attempt to introduce a "more collegiate feel," the NCAA is blocking off 2,200 seats behind each basket at Ford Field for students. While that might seem like a lot of seats, it is the equivalent of only 5.5 percent of the available seating at Ford Field. In reality, the student sections are simply a ploy to make the games seem livelier on TV.
And that is the most egregious way in which the NCAA tournament strips college basketball of its inherent beauty -- by shamelessly catering to television at the expense of the live audience. Back in 1999, CBS paid $6 billion for the rights to broadcast the NCAA Tournament from 2003 until 2011. Now, college basketball fans have to watch this dog-and-pony show that is, first and foremost, meant to look good on TV, and then, almost as an afterthought, meant to capture the essence of college basketball. The theory goes that the bland atmosphere of a large tournament venue can be overcome on television screens with tight camera angles and close-ups of smiling cheerleaders.
But even that doesn't work sometimes. College Hoops Journal takes the NCAA to task for its scheduling tournament games in oversized arenas. "Not only did the regionals in Glendale, Ariz., look like they were being played during the middle of the night (the lighting was all wrong)," the college basketball blog wrote, "the seating setup didn't allow for a passionate, intimate atmosphere."
Basically, the NCAA is sacrificing its product, which it so beautifully constructed all season long, for a large pot of money that will then be distributed to its member schools and conferences. (A pot of money, I might point out, that the players never receive. But that is a different argument for a different article.) This shameless money-mad culture of the NCAA tournament makes it impossible to defend, in good conscious, the essential amateur beauty of college hoops with my NBA-loving friends. In the end, however, that's to be expected. The NCAA, after all, might be a non-profit organization, but it's all business.
Got a myth you want to see busted? Or just want to bust my chops? Send all comments to Jacob.Osterhout@gmail.com.
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