Sports public would devour more Madness

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 14, 2011 - 12:28 AM

America has two truly national sports, sports that thrive because of incredibly high television ratings, regardless of who plays for the championship any given season. Those two sports: the NFL and March Madness.

America has two truly national sports, sports that thrive because of incredibly high television ratings, regardless of who plays for the championship any given season.

Those two sports: the NFL, and March Madness.

March Madness is not to be confused with college basketball. College basketball is an increasingly regional sport of declining quality. March Madness -- the NCAA tournament -- has become, like the NFL, a sport that commands the attention of even the casual fan.

Baseball needs large markets to thrive to capture large-market shares across the nation. The NBA, too, is at the mercy of market size to aid television ratings. The NHL is a niche sport with a small but rabid following. College football has robbed itself of sustained relevance by creating a "playoff'' system in which there is only one playoff game that matters.

Only the NFL and March Madness dominate the national ratings and the national consciousness regardless of the identity of their postseason participants.

That's why the talking heads on Sunday seemed so silly.

On CBS, Charles Barkley, wearing a gray coat the size of a circus tent, looked so puffed up with anger (and cholesterol) that you feared one of those poor buttons on his jacket would pop off and hurtle into orbit.

On ESPN, Digger Phelps, looking like an extra from HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," waved a pink Hi-Liter that matched his tie and complained.

What about, only he knows. There were no subtitles.

The target of their ire: The tournament selection committee putting Alabama-Birmingham and Virginia Commonwealth into the field ahead of the likes of Colorado, a team that finished 8-8 in its conference.

It's not that the talking heads were wrong. Colorado is a better team than UAB or VCU.

It's that the talking heads were missing the big picture. Which is: If you get left out of a 68-team bracket designed to determine a worthy national championship, you were irrelevant well before the selection committee snubbed you.

Here's another big-picture view the talking heads disregarded: The teams don't make the tournament. The bracket makes the tournament.

Whether Colorado makes the field should be irrelevant to everyone outside of Boulder. All that matters in terms of March Madness' credibility and popularity is that every team capable of winning a national title is included in the field, and that everyone you know is capable of printing off a bracket, filling it out, and suddenly caring whether Morehead State or Belmont can pull off an upset.

Because college basketball is in decline and March Madness remains a subject of national fascination, the NCAA -- the only organization in recent history run worse than Petters Warehouse Direct -- should play to its strengths.

The NCAA should turn its premier tournament into an event that consumes all of March.

Conference tournaments are a joke. They pit teams that know they already have qualified for the NCAA tournament against teams desperate to get in. In smaller conferences, they sometimes reward teams that get hot in the tournament over teams that displayed excellence all season, allowing the winner to grab the automatic -- and often only -- NCAA bid from that conference.

Scrap the week devoted to conference tournaments, and you could expand the NCAA tournament without expanding the season.

There are 346 Division I schools. It wouldn't be hard to trim that field, via play-in games or selection, to 256. Instead of disjointed and sometimes meaningless or unfair conference tournaments followed by play-in games, the NCAA tournament would simply expand by two rounds.

That would make for more upsets, more dramatic finishes, more great TV.

College basketball should sacrifice a week of its season for the good of March Madness. The people who run your office pool won't mind printing out a two-page bracket.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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