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The Madness

By Peg Brown

Blame the “madness” on a Canadian—March Madness that is! The inventor of the sport of basketball was indeed a Canadian—James Naismith. The oldest child of Scottish immigrants to Canada, orphaned as a young child, raised by his grandmother in a strict Presbyterian home (later to become a Presbyterian minister), Naismith immigrated to Springfield, MA. During his first year as a physical education instructor of Springfield College (1890-1891), he invented basketball. It was only after Naismith was instructed by the head of the Springfield YMCA where he was moonlighting, to develop an indoor game (in just two weeks) that would quiet a very rowdy group of young men, that the idea was born. Part of his task was to develop a game that would “make it fair for all players and not too rough.” Let’s put that another way—he could never have envisioned Big East basketball before the big money of football decimated what some might say was the best league in college ball. But I digress.

We did have “March Madness” during the 1960s—we just didn’t know it. Basketball looked entirely different in the early 1960s—so too did the NCAA tournament. Remember that most high school boys’ basketball games were played in a gymnasium and , at my high school, the audience was seated in the auditorium—where you could only truly see the action if it was at the stage end of the court. There were no baggy shorts, no three point shots and no shot clock. There also weren’t AAU leagues and scouts to identify and begin to recruit young men who were “stars” in junior high or high school. McDonald’s All-American team was well in the future, and remember, girls’ basketball was in those days—on the intramural schedule (pre Title IX). Schools were not NIKE schools or Adidas schools, at least at the high school level. I never knew anyone who went to basketball camp “away” to hone their skills and become a better prospect for a Division I scholarship. We did occasionally have a good athlete attend a fifth year at a prep school to “bulk up,” or “study up” to be more attractive to a major program, but that was the exception.

Just as there were vast differences in the game as we know it today, there was also less emphasis on the “madness” of spring college basketball. There was no Dick Vitale or bracketology—no computers to do detailed analysis of every statistic of every team—in fact, the only way you could check on a game during working hours was to clandestinely turn on a radio or find a small television tucked away in some obscure corner of the school. However, make no mistake, there were always serious gambling groups filling out their brackets—many of our coaches. At my high schools, where Dad was a coach, it was a much closed group—seriously. The mostly male faculty members would gather in some small conference room near the athletic department and with paper and pen fill out a bracket that one of them had run off the mimeograph machine—(remember, the bleeding blue ink and that wonderful smell!) There was not open seating at this table—that is to say, the places at the table were limited and someone had to resign, move or die before there would be a vacancy. The group met at exactly 2 p.m. on the appointed day. If you weren’t in your seat at the designated time—you were forever out of the competition. (And, I’m serious—there were actually faculty members every year who were ready to slip into a space—imitating the movements seen in musical chairs when one chair had been removed). Following an elaborate formula, the brackets would be completed with much discussion about process, fairness and who was going to get stuck choosing the number 16th seed. I was not privy to how much money was actually at stake—but I’m going to guess it was somewhere in the range of $5 per participant.

The NCAA Division I Men’s Tournament had been part of the American culture since 1939 (Oregon beat Ohio State that year), but the Women’s’ Division I NCAA Tournament was not instituted until the 1981-82 season. Louisiana Tech beat Cheyney State that year—never to win again as Tennessee and Connecticut dominated the competition for the next three decades.

Remember those $5 bets I alluded to in the 1960s? Today’s coaches and players could have never envisioned how lucrative the NCAA Tournament would become—and how disruptive it can be in today’s world. Hold onto your wallets for some recent statistics:

TV ad revenue for the NCAA men’s’ tournament exceeded $1.1 billion last year—just slightly less that the total for the NFL postseason—including the Super Bowl (Kantar Media, 3/18/15);
In 2014 the NCAA Division I men’s teams participating spent an average of $5 million per team: Total: almost $350 million (The New Yorker-3/14);
Championship teams spend closer to $7 million; in 2014 Louisville had spent $15.6 million; Duke-$15.1 million (The Motley Fool, 3/19/2014);
In the last decade, Louisville, which also spends more on its men’s basketball program than any other university, received over $40 million in revenue from tournament participation. Over the same time frame, Providence College received over $11 million in revenue from tournament appearances (netting just under $5 million.)
According to CBS/Turner sports which has an exclusive 14 year contract with the NCAA, just under $190 million will be split among the conferences—for each round the team makes, the NCAA distributes approximately $250,000 to the school’s home conference; CBS and Turner Broadcasting pay the NCAA $10.8 billion for the exclusive broadcast rights (M. Edelman, Forbes Magazine, 3/18/14);
$12 billion—estimated amount gambled on the NCAA tournament last year. Of this total, only $100 million was gambled through legal bookies; an estimated $3 billion was bet in office pools (Business Time, 3/19/14).

Dad—move over, I’m taking your place at that table.

Author’s Notes:

Estimated amount companies expect to lose for every unproductive work hour during the first week of the Tournament–$1.2 billion—based on a Microsoft survey that found about 50 million Americans participate in March Madness pools (Naples Daily News, 4/12/14); next big discussion for the NCAA—with all of this money, when will we begin compensating college basketball players? According to Forbes Magazine estimates, based on expected revenue, college players should earn about $340,000 to play in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. After all, according to USA Today Bloomberg Business reports (3/18/15) the average salary for a men’s Division I basketball coach is $1.4 million; 35 coaches in the 2015 tournament made seven figures or more before bonuses; Mike Krzyzewski pulls in the most–$9.7 million.

Tickets for the 2016 Men’s Final Four scheduled for April 2 and 4, 2016 begin at $250. Fill out your bracket and mark your calendar!