March Madness. The very name conjures up images of out-of-control competition—emotional, insane. Even before the big NCAA basketball tournament begins, we have (drum roll, please...) Judgment Week. And when the preliminary rounds are over, it's down to the Final Four.
Over-the-top drama is the modern way to market big-time sports. Professional wrestling with its oversized, made-up characters, screaming matches, and in-and-out-of-the-ring histrionics showed the way. But the NFL picked up the baton in the late '60s with the creation of the Super Bowl and its accouterments. The half-time show. The heavily promoted debut of new commercials (oh, the excitement!) Even the coin toss to see who receives on the first play is freighted with anticipation and its own broadcast segment. Bud Bowl, anyone?
College football is no slouch, with its many colorfully named Bowls, each of which is, like the Super Bowl, in point of fact just a football game. But that system, which points up the lack of a real NCAA college football tournament, is faintly ridiculous, as fans can easily sense, however much they enjoy Thanksgivings in front of the TV.
March Madness, though, is really something special. It's a real tournament, highly organized, but with just enough subjectivity (as with seedings) to generate publicity through controversy. There's ample opportunity for a Cinderella team to push into the late rounds. A small industry has grown up around simply helping people print materials for an office pool. Mathletes calculate the odds of a perfect bracket. (What's a quintillion or three among office-mates?)
It all seems somewhat childish, in a way. But sports are designed to appeal to the child in us, especially men. Ultimately, it's just boys playing with a ball on a field. And that's exactly the feeling the geniuses of sports promotion know how to tap into. The lesson? Know your core customers. Or even just the relevant parts of them. Mo-o-o-m!!! He stepped over the line! No fair! Foul! Foul!