Who gets invited to The Big Dance? Who will be a Cinderella? What about the Sweet Sixteen? We find it endearing and amusing that the language sportscasters and fans employ to talk about the annual NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament is strangely similar to the vocabulary of teenage girls in the ’50s discussing their social lives.
March Madness is approaching its grand finale this weekend in Glendale, Arizona at the University of Phoenix Stadium – the Final Four games are on April 1 and the Championship is on April 3. Of course here at Dandelion Chandelier we have an office pool going – everyone’s brackets got busted so we had to restart it with new picks after the Elite Eight.
Like the Super Bowl, March Madness is a national event that brings a lot of different people to the table. Sixty-eight college teams – the champions from 32 Division 1 conferences, plus 36 teams chosen by a selection committee – meet for single-elimination games over the course of several weeks. Bracketheads drive themselves to distraction trying to predict the winners of each match-up (despite the fact that the odds of a perfect bracket are over a billion-to-one, which led Warren Buffet a few years ago to offer a billion dollars to anyone who could do it; suffice it say, he still has his money). When Barak Obama was President, the announcements of his bracket each year were televised. When I was CEO at CNBC, our viewers insisted that we run the scores of the games in the same screen space as the stock ticker, because people were obsessed with getting the latest updates without having to change the channel.
It definitely qualifies as A Thing.
A lucrative Thing, actually. Our friends at Statista report that last year the total national TV advertising spending for March Madness was $1.25 billion. According to Kantar Media, a 30-second spot cost $1.6 million in 2015. Last year, the championship game drew a TV audience of almost 16 million, with the Final Four games not far behind at 10.7 million. This year, 55% of Americans plan to watch all, most or some of the games (30% plan to watch at a bar, and 40% at a friend’s house). In 2016, the tournament was live-streamed a total of 69.1 million times.
March Madness is one of those sporting events that brings amateur bettors out of the woodwork: of those following the tournament, 55% are planning to bet on at least one game with a friend; 27% will bet online, and 26% will wager with work colleagues. 14% will use a bookie or a casino.
With so many other options, why do so many people in the luxury class pay so much attention to this tournament? We hung around the hoop for a while, and here’s what we heard.
According to one member of the Sports Desk, “March Madness is one of the sports world’s great events, and anything can happen – well-played games, rollovers, and upsets. The players are just kids, so they’re less predictable than the pros.” For example, this year his alma mater was ranked last in the tournament (#64) and they almost beat Georgetown, which at that time was ranked number one in the nation. His team was ahead until the last 20 seconds, and he says “everybody I knew from college was on the phone saying ‘Are you watching this? It’s incredible!’”
Another Sports Desk hoops aficionado offered: “College basketball is more exciting to watch than pro basketball, because it’s more intense. The NBA players are being paid, but the college kids are playing for their school/team/coach. There’s a lot more heart with college players. College kids play every game as if it’s a playoff game.”
The tournament has its own norms and rituals – like hockey many of them are mystifying to the occasional fan. For example, at the end of each regional championship game – and at the close of the national final – the winning team cuts down the nets, the players cut a single strand off each net, and the head coach cuts the last strand. Another popular ritual is the “One Shining Moment” song that’s played after the championship game ends. On the more predictable side, there are also championship trophies and rings for all.
The consensus on the Sports Desk is that it’s been a great tournament this year. Among the surprises? Villanova, a #1 seed, and Duke, a #2 seed, were both out before the Sweet Sixteen. Kansas and Arizona are also out. Another unexpected turn of events? “Pesky underdog” South Carolina made the Final Four as a #7 seed – crashing the party bigly (SC is my father’s home state, so there are some special bragging rights in our family right now). It’s Gonzaga’s first Final Four ever. In another surprising turn, Oregon – a #3 seed – is back in the Final Four for the first time since 1939, and playing without star Chris Boucher, who is injured.
Meanwhile, North Carolina (a #1 seed) is in its second consecutive appearance, having narrowly lost the national championship game last year. The Tar Heels almost didn’t get their ticket punched this year – they beat Kentucky in a nail-biter when Luke Maye beat the buzzer and they won 75-73. For their fans, this was a Moment. Before Sunday, it had been 27 years since UNC won in March Madness with a shot in the final second. A Sports Desk college hoops fan describes it thus: “As for THE SHOT! It was the shot of the tournament. It was a last-second shot to win a game in overtime. Rarely ever happens, and was the only buzzer-beater of the tournament, which is usually filled with them. Honestly no words can describe it. Only screaming in pure adulation and jumping up and down can describe what it felt like.”
Despite the fact that the nation’s favorite teams didn’t make it to the Final Four (Statista reports that the top three NCAA team faves nationally are Florida, Duke and UCLA), the semis and the championship look to be interesting match-ups.
Vegas has the Tar Heels favored over Oregon by 5 right now – and momentum is swinging toward UNC to take it all. Roy Williams is their coach and is heavily favored in part because the other coaches have never been in a Final Four (as we learned during Super Bowl LI, experience matters). On the other hand, seasoned fans note that this Oregon team has been good in the clutch, and has lost only once in its last 13 games (we also note that this week on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, the puppies picked Oregon to win it all).
The Gamecocks are 6.5-point underdogs to the Zags, who coasted through March Madness this year (although some would say that their competition in the West Coast Conference was less-than-stellar). Their team is older, with a fast offense, and their coach Mark Few is one of the most highly-respected in the game. South Carolina can counter with the SEC Player of the Year, senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, their grinding defense, and their coach Frank Martin’s “maniacal determination.” They took out three of the top four seeds in the East Region, so it would be foolish to count them out. Sounds like a fair fight to us.
So how can you celebrate the final weekend of March Madness in luxury? We asked some of our far-flung correspondents what ultra-rich fans are likely to be up to this weekend, and how they roll.
—Some will fly out to the games – arriving by private jet, of course (probably with a plane-load of family and friends). The stadium has luxury suites, but center-court seats close to the floor are the best and most-coveted places to be. Those prime seats are hard to come by, and they quickly hit luxury price points: a friend reports “I paid $390 total for the two Final Four games and the national championship game. That’s face value for seats about 20 rows up from the floor, center court. If you bought those same tickets from a broker, they would be in the thousands.” He’s right: as of this post, Ticket City is reporting that the average price of tickets to the semi-finals is currently $451, with the good seats going for $4,875 each; the average price for Monday’s final game is $838, and the good seats are fetching $11,500 each right now (one Sports Desk member reports seeing good seats for sale online for $15,000 a pop). These are the second-highest average prices for Final Four tickets in the past 5 years.
—VIP access to the pre-game weekend festivities is part of kicking it mogul-style. As part of a fan fest open to the public, Keith Urban will perform on Friday; the Chain Smokers on Saturday; and Ryan McLemore and Aerosmith on Sunday.
–At the games themselves, there will surely be celebrity-sightings. All of the big-time college coaches will be there. If North Carolina makes the National Championship game, you’ll spot Michael Jordan, along with former elite UNC stars like James Worthy and Vince Carter. Former Gonzaga star John Stockton is likely to attend. Phil Knight from Nike may make an appearance to support Oregon. It’s common to see former college and pro basketball players, NFL players, Hollywood celebrities, former politicians and popular musicians in the stands. One of the Sports Desk members casually mentions “I have personally seen Ashley Judd, Drake, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, George Bush and Bill Clinton.” Here in the office, we’re hoping for an appearance by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, upon whom we continue to have a massive crush.
–If you’re watching from the comfort of your own home, and you want to create a luxurious weekend of great basketball and great food, you could take a page from our Perfect Super Bowl Party Plan and host one or two viewing parties. You’ll need a couple of TVs, some craft beer on tap, plenty of food, some wait-staff, and a handful of friendly wagers for the guests. Just plan on kicking it reasonably old school: the tech world hasn’t had significant impact to date on how people experience this tournament. You can stream the games on your smartphone or desktop, but you cannot interact with the players or get any behind-the-scenes footage. No VR or AR of note just yet. Statista reports that 59% of fans will catch at least one of the games on a tablet, smartphone, laptop or PC, but 96% are going to watch at least one game on TV.
–If it were up to us, we’d vote for renting out an entire sports bar. You could invite everyone you know to watch the game there. That way, you’ve got multiple TV screens, lots of choices for beer on tap, and no cleanup duties afterward. After all, the Championship game is on a school night.
Whether you’re entertaining in your own home or at a bar, here are some team-appropriate craft beers to have on tap that will give your guests an authentic taste of each team’s home state (some are also quite aptly named for a college men’s sporting event): for South Carolina, go with Westbrook’s Mexican Cake Imperial Stout or Coast’s The Boy King Double IPA; for North Carolina we recommend Olde Hickory’s The Event Horizon; for Oregon, Deschutes’ The Abyss, or Pelican’s Mother of All Storms; and for Gonzaga, Fremont’s B-Bomb Bourbon Abominable Winter Ale or Black Raven’s Wisdom Seeker Double IPA.
You can also have some big fun with the food choices for the Final Four games. In honor of the Gamecocks, go with grits and shrimp; fried chicken; Hoppin’ John; a Lowcountry Boil; and plenty of sweet tea. For the Tar Heels, you cannot go wrong with BBQ; hushpuppies; fried green tomatoes; deviled eggs; Krispy Kreme doughnuts (they were invented in NC); and Cheerwine. For the Ducks, think Tillamook Cheese with some crackers; anything with hazelnuts (95% of them are grown in Oregon); Moonstruck Chocolates; marionberry pie; Stumptown Coffee; and a few nice bottles of Pinot Noir. Finally, no true Bulldogs fan will refuse anything you serve with these ingredients: Rainier cherries; red raspberries (Washington produces more than any other state); Walla Walla Sweet Onions; and Washington apples. For the healthy, offer cedar-planked salmon – for the carnivores, see if you can fly in a few Dick’s Deluxe burgers (with fries).
If you want to look like a genius in the office this morning, just take the advice of CBS Sports and confidently pick “Carolina” to win it all. And bosses of the world, take note: when asked what they’d do if they wanted to watch March Madness and couldn’t because they had to work, a full 10% of employees said they’d either take the day off or call in sick, and another 10% said they didn’t know what they’d do. Maybe that’s why they call it Madness?