Real Madness

Imagine that you like to play bingo. You have a particular bingo hall where, once a year, you get together with 350 of your friends and play in a tournament. You like this tournament; you enjoy laying out your game sheets and getting all your ink daubers in a row; and it’s always exciting when they spin that hopper and you wait on the edge of your seat to see which balls come out. Maybe your numbers will come up and you’ll be the big winner.

Except…you never win. Some of those 350 friends win, sure–but not you. Never you. And you’re not alone. Most everyone else in the hall never wins either. Year after year, only a certain fortunate few ever get to shout “Bingo!”

If this really did describe you, you might get suspicious about that bingo hall, wouldn’t you? Would you keep going there? Would you keep playing their game?

Get ready to ask yourself those questions, because it’s March, and the bingo hall–a.k.a. the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship–is about to open again.

The DFR logo with Basketball The NCAA tournament will begin in a week and a half. Sixty-eight teams will try to push their way through three weeks of single elimination games until one team gets to wear the crown. There will be wild finishes, buzzer beaters, lots of talk about Cinderellas, and maybe a handful of genuine upsets. However, the thing we probably won’t see is a first-time champion.

How safe is that bet? Consider this: currently 351 schools participate in men’s D1 basketball. And how many teams have ever won the NCAA Tournament? Thirty-four. That’s 34, or–to put it another way–less than ten percent of current Division 1 schools have ever won the championship.

 “If you showed up in that bingo hall year after year and noticed that only some thirty-odd among the players ever won, eventually you’d walk out in disgust and never spend another dime there again. Fans of the NCAA Tournament, however, seem to be much more forgiving.”

Let’s put that number in perspective. First we should note that that figure of thirty-four includes one school (CCNY) that no longer plays in Division I. So thirty-three is probably a better total for championship schools. It is also worth noting that the 351 membership figure includes fourteen schools that joined D1 after winning D2 championships. So 337 might be a more representative figure for D1 basketball membership; that puts the percentage of winners just barely above 10%.

Meanwhile, Division II basketball currently includes sixty-four (64) schools. Of the current D2 members (excluding those schools that moved up to D1), twenty-five have won their level’s championship. That’s 39% of the membership to have ever won the championship. (If you include the former D2 champion schools in the membership, you get 39 out of 78 schools–exactly half–having won the championship.)

Spreading the championship wealth is not limited to D2; Division III basketball fields sixty-one (61) teams and has crowned twenty-three separate champions (38%). Clearly, competitive balance has a home in the lower ranks of intercollegiate athletics.

To be fair, it is almost inevitable that Division I basketball would see a smaller percentage of members winning its championship. Three hundred and fifty-one teams is a substantially larger field of competitors than the other divisions, and they’ve only been holding the championship tournament for 76 years. To be unfair–but probably far closer to the truth–the NCAA has been organizing their Division I tournament for seventy-six years (substantially longer than the other divisions), and yet only thirty-four separate schools have won the damn thing. That means almost half the championships (45%) decided by the tournament have been won by a team that previously won the title.

Just imagine if a similar level of competitive imbalance ruled pro sports. Baseball and the NHL, with thirty teams each, would have seen only three teams ever win either the World Series or the Stanley Cup. So too with the NFL and its 32 teams; actually, two more teams leaves a remainder, so let’s be generous and grant football four separate Super Bowl champions. Mmmm, mmmm! That’s good competin’!

Of course, reality has done much better than that. Eighteen–more than half–of the NFL’s teams have won the Super Bowl, and that figure ignores pre-Super Bowl era champions like the Eagles, Browns, and Lions. Similar competitive balance applies to the other pro leagues. And, as we’ve seen, the NCAA’s other divisions provide true, fair competition.

But not D1 basketball; for all the blather about Cinderellas and upsets, the NCAA Tournament invariably winds up with one among a few favored teams winning the title. The results are so predictable, within certain bounds, that those of an untrusting nature could be forgiven for calling the whole thing rigged.

Again I quote the wisdom of The Lion King’s Timon: “And everybody’s OK with this?!”

Apparently so. Millions of sports fans will glue themselves to their TV sets and couches this month and eat up every second of this profoundly predictable exercise in reinforcing the status quo.

If you showed up in that bingo hall year after year and noticed that only a small group among the players ever won, eventually you’d walk out in disgust and never spend another dime there again. Fans of the NCAA Tournament, however, seem to be much more forgiving. So while you’re sitting there downing your beer and stuffing yourself with nachos and somehow not being bored to tears by seeing Kentucky or Duke or Kansas win yet another championship, you might want to ask yourself a pertinent question: when they talk about “madness” here, what exactly are they talking about? If you’re honest about it, the answer might be: they’re talking about you.


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