March Madness…Office style

(This column was written with Kevin McDowell, who besides being a college basketball fan, is a Microsoft jack-of-all-trades, having worked in product support, training, user assistance, internal tools development and currently testing for Office Online. He spends his spare time with his wife, Leslie, and three kids (Noah, Seth and Eden), playing keyboard or guitar at his church, playing XBox 360, dabbling in digital photography, reading, and hiking in the Cascades.)

Last week, as I was dreamily staring out the window at the determined crocuses poking their heads up through the dirt, I received an e-mail from my good friend Randall, who is a principle test manager here in Office and who has supplied me with some great column ideas (printer security, for one). Spring fever had hit Randall too, but in a much different way. This time he suggested I write a column about March Madness, that college basketball tournament that rolls around every spring and whips many Americans into a fevered frenzy.

Don't get me wrong; I like sports as much as the next office lady in orthopedic shoes and support hose. In fact, I find basketball quite accessible compared to some other sports: The ball is big (unlike hockey where I can never keep track of the puck), the players aren't covered up with padding and helmets (again like hockey and football, too), and it's fast-moving, unlike "America's favorite pastime" which can be like watching grass grow (the grass is growing, actually, while you're sitting there staring at it and getting the sunburn of your life with a lapful of nachos).

But I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what more I had to say about March Madness besides, "It's spring. We have NCAA brackets. Click HERE to get them." So, Randall roped in someone on his team, Kevin McDowell, who is as, uh, enthusiastic as a fan can get. Rather than me writing the column this week, I challenged Kevin to do it. I learned more about this tournament by reading his column than I ever thought possible (or, honestly ever wanted to know) but I do have more of an appreciation for the event. So go forth, read on, and prosper through bracketology.

image Kevin waxes feverish about March Madness

So it's that time of year again: Spring time — the wearing of the green, Easter, flowers blooming, rain (if you happen to be anywhere near Microsoft's headquarters), and basketball. And I'm not talking just any basketball, but March Madness, that glorious experience of watching the nation's best (and a few that, to quote a certain ex-Journey member and celebrity judge, are "just all right") compete for the national championship. If you're like my dear friend Crabby, you may be thinking "Who cares?"

Well, let me tell you why I care. Although I now live in the Seattle area, I spent the first 30 years of my life in North Carolina. Growing up, I lived and breathed college basketball. From seventh to twelfth grade, whenever the NCAA tournament was being played, many teachers had TVs in the classroom with the games on. If a teacher didn't have the game on, many students skipped that class and went to one where it was on. It was rumored that my junior-high principal, Mr. Edelman, a Duke University grad, even sent a memo to the teachers encouraging study of the geometry and physics of a certain spherical, orange and black ball, up to and including watching said ball on TV. He might have been biased, but some of the best college basketball in the country was played by the Duke Blue Devils and the University of North Carolina (UNC) Tarheels. Two of the game's most storied coaches, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K to those who get tongue-tied with that onslaught of consonants) and Carolina's Dean Smith (now retired), led those teams to numerous tourney wins. And I mean numerous: They are two of the only six college coaches to attain 800 career wins. I could go on and on, but you'd probably get bored and my own alma mater, Virginia Tech, may get a little jealous.

History of March Madness

For those who weren't raised in North Carolina, who prefer watching the Food Network to ESPN, or who are simply living under a rock, the NCAA tournament has been big news for the last week or two. Wondering why? Here's a little background, so you can be one of the know-it-alls at the office water cooler. The first NCAA (that's National Collegiate Athletic Association, rock-dwellers) men's basketball tournament was held in 1939 with only eight teams. Oregon beat Ohio State, 46-33. Teams that won their local conference tournament championship at the end of the season were invited to participate. As you can imagine, some good teams that had one bad game during their conference tournament didn't get invited, while some teams that got hot at the right time, did get invited. The NCAA began adding at-large bids in 1951, in addition to the automatic invitations, to include teams that had been successful through the season. And as interest and advertising opportunities grew, the field gradually increased until 2000, when it was expanded to 65 teams (the number 64 and 65 teams play each other for the last spot). Some other notable milestones:

  • 1946: First televised tournament. Oklahoma State beat UNC, 43-40.
  • 1982: Women's tournament added.
  • 1996: First tournament Web page created.
  • 2006:19 million video streams of games served online.

The men have held 68 tournaments, with UCLA winning the most at 11. The women have held 24 tournaments, with Tennessee running the court at 7 wins.

March Madness money

Now, why should you care about March Madness? After all, doesn't it waste valuable office time with people trolling the Web for game statistics, watching games online, filling out tournament brackets, wasting company ink and toner, and gossiping in each other's cubicles about who's the best team, who's the greatest player, how bad the refs were, and why their team should've won?

Possibly, but many companies whose employees get carried away in the madness help perpetuate it by buying television advertising during the tournament. The men's NCAA tournament championship is second only to the Super Bowl in ad revenue. In 2007, a 30-second commercial spot during the final game cost $1.3 million! If you figure in all the time-outs, halftime breaks and pre- and postgame analysis sessions, a lot of money is made during that championship game, plus a lot more during the games leading up to the championship. Advertising during the tournament brings in so much money that in 1999, CBS paid $6 billion to broadcast the men's tournament for 11 years. And in 2001, ESPN paid $200 million for an 11-year deal to broadcast the women's tournament (they got softball, volleyball, and swimming in the package). From 2000 to 2006, the top 10 advertisers alone spent over $1 billion. Those advertisers include such blue-chip companies as AT&T, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft.

Is the advertising worth it? In 2007, 40.3 million viewers watched Florida beat Ohio State, and 132.7 million viewers watched other games in the tournament. In 2004, the women's championship game between Tennessee and University of Connecticut on ESPN garnered 3.8 million viewers — the most-watched basketball game in ESPN history up to that point, for either men or women. The UConn women won that game, 70-61, their fourth national championship won by beating Tennessee. The current record for ESPN viewers of any basketball game was just set, on March 9, 2008, with 5.28 million viewers for the last men's game of the regular season between UNC and Duke. UNC won, 76-68.

Viewership isn't the only measuring stick by which you can judge the popularity of March Madness. Last year, more than 60,000 of you downloaded your tournament brackets from Office Online. So we really like the tournament. Download our NCAA basketball tournament bracket with tracker or the NCAA basketball tournament bracket.

There's much to appreciate about basketball on a corporate and social level — the advertising, the office pools, the parties, the competition. But that's not the best part of March Madness.

The beauty of college basketball

NCAA basketball, in this fan's opinion, is one of the last pure sports. While broadcasting companies, advertisers, and the schools and conferences reel in big profits from the madness, the individual players do not make any money. Unlike professional sports, where mercenary players bounce to wherever the highest paycheck is available, college players usually play their entire career at one school. Most collegiate players have little chance of making any money playing after college. The NCAA estimates only 1.2% actually go pro. They play merely for the love of the game and for an education. Furthermore, unlike college football, college basketball has a true championship playoff where the best of the best compete to win an outright championship, not some mythical championship bestowed by the sports gods or a panel of coaches, computers, and sportswriters.

College basketball showcases the best about sports: competition, innovation, and teamwork. Executing well on these three things can make a sports team — or a company — great. So March Madness exemplifies the best about us, as teammates, as colleagues, as enthusiasts.

So, while you or your co-workers may get a little distracted for the next week or two, maybe at the same time you'll get inspired to take on new challenges or tougher competition.

Find more NCAA brackets here.

"For sheer genius, brackets rank with the Rosetta Stone, the U.S. Constitution, and the trenchant observations of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. If Monet were only still alive, he would surely be painting brackets instead of haystacks." — Frank Deford