No more accurate societal compass exists here in the sports wilderness than the changes wrought last week on the basketball tournament front.
Let’s call them the Slightly Enlarged Dance and Honey I Shrunk the Junior Prom.
First, the caretakers of the NCAA tournament – resisting for the moment the temptation to open this holy rite to any college possessing a pump to inflate the balls – added three teams/games to its bracket, a few extra whoopee cushions in the madness that is March.
Less than 24 hours later, the membership of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association performed a radical teamectomy on its state tournaments by cutting in half the number of high schools that will be gathered together to decide the trophies.
In both cases, the motivating force was identified as … you! Yes, you – the sports fan! You spoke and you’re being heard! Don’t you feel important?
And it’s almost, oh, 10 percent true. The other 90 percent is money.
OK, so it’s all money.
The NCAA has a new 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to televise the tournament, a figure they were able to command despite reports that CBS came up red airing this year’s event. What kept the bidding going between the winning alliance and ESPN was NCAA leadership’s excited dithering about the possibility – nay, the likelihood – of immediate expansion to 96 teams; the more games, the more opportunities for the networks to recoup their outlay.
Instead, the NCAA got its deal without giving TV a say in expansion and apparently threw in the bump from 65 to 68 teams as the equivalent of a signing bonus – and also as a bone to all the many coaches who are under the miscalculation their seats will drop several BTUs with a larger bracket.
Meanwhile, the general public reaction to not having a 96-team tournament shoved down its maw was the sort of warped gratitude that bubbles up when your employer doesn’t cut your salary or imposes a week’s furlough instead of two. The NCAA lets the average fan think his opinion matters, and in a year or two will probably expand to 96 anyway.
It’s an undeniably bad idea, of course. Even 68 is dumb. Really now, would Illinois, Mississippi State and Virginia Tech – the consensus last-three-teams-left-out this past March – have improved this year’s event? Did any have a legitimate chance at the national title even in a field considered the weakest in several years?
Even the fans of the 11th-place team in the Big East are smart enough to grasp that their heroes have already demonstrated they don’t have the moves for the Big Dance. For some reason, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim – leader of the coaches’ tea party – isn’t, but then the notion that those who coach the game are unequivocally its best stewards was shown to be a lie decades ago.
And what is the connection to the WIAA’s retreat to three-day state tournaments, consolidated in three cities on the same weekend?
Well, it seems state tourneys aren’t quite the ATMs they used to be. Particularly unappealing to ticket buyers are games in the consolation bracket, the polite way of saying “loser out.”
The explanation from WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese: “We truly believe we can create a better event for kids and fans. … If people really thought what we were providing for them right now is the way it should be, our attendance during consolation brackets would be greater.”
OK, so it’s fan-driven – fans being a critical component for the student experience. So where was this logic three years ago when the WIAA split the B’s in two for a total of six classifications – only a decade after expanding from four to five?
This was done “for the kids” – to give more of them a chance to reach state, yet another sign of our everybody-gets- a-trophy culture. It was roundly panned, and among other things chased away the fan base for the State B in Spokane, the WIAA’s most profitable event. Yet now the WIAA fathers are halving the number of kids who get to experience a multiday tournament.
Lots of foresight there, Mr. Career Educrat.
This was probably inevitable – Washington, purportedly, was the last bastion of the 16-team double-elimination tournament. And there’s nothing wrong with a three-day, eight-team event. Lots of drama there.
But what it speaks to as much as anything else is evolving, or de-evolving, tastes and possibly even values.
Consolation games aren’t “meaningful” – to the players maybe, but not to us. But beyond that, high school games simply don’t capture our attention, either – unless they’re on TV, of course. There are football games at Albi Stadium that don’t lure 50 students from either side, unless you count the band that’s required to be there.
The proliferation of events on TV, the ESPNing of America, has made it easy to prefer spectacles over mere games, and to find our spectacles elsewhere – to have them dictated to us. And when something is certified as a spectacle – like the NCAA tournament – then the caretakers can’t help but conclude that making it even bigger can only improve it.
At least that’s what we’ll be told. Improvement has almost nothing to do with it.