What is March Madness?

March Madness is a nickname for the NCAA Tournament – the biggest college basketball tournament in the United States. More than 20 million Americans were expected to watch the national championship game Monday night between the University of Michigan and Villanova University.

I love watching March Madness. But I don’t agree with the Americans who claim that it is the greatest basketball event in the world. I don’t agree with that at all.

First, the basics. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the biggest league in the USA. It also happens to be our most corrupt league.

There are 347 men’s teams playing in Division 1, which is the highest level of NCAA basketball. At the end of the regular season, 68 of those teams are invited to the national playoffs – the NCAA Tournament.

The nickname March Madness has everything to do with the single-game knockout format of the NCAA Tournament. It’s like the FA Cup in England: Win each game and you move on; lose and you’re out.

But the NCAA Tournament isn’t really about upsets. It’s actually about money. Please click on this image to watch a short video:The video mentions that an extra $8.8 million was paid to extend the March Madness TV rights through 2032. The video was mistaken. The actual number was $8.8 billion.

This year alone, the NCAA is earning about $1 billion from March Madness, which is more than the GDP of 14 small countries. But the real Madness is that very little of that money will go to the players.

How unfair is this? NCAA basketball teams in Division 1 are allowed to offer 13 scholarships. In other words, 13 players on each March Madness team are going to school for free – which means those 13 players on scholarship don’t pay for their classes, their room or their meals, along with a few other benefits.

This system of paying players with an education has been going on for more than a century in American college sports. Scholarships were available to players when the first NCAA men’s basketball tournament was held in 1939. That initial championship was won by the University of Oregon, whose players were nicknamed the “Tall Firs” (because Oregon is known for its forests):

It’s hilarious to watch how they played back then, isn’t it? So much has changed since those primitive days. Not only has basketball become more sophisticated, but TV has enabled the American game to become an expensive form of entertainment.

The old ways of playing basketball and sharing video with fans have been abandoned, as you can see. But the old way of paying the players hasn’t changed. The NCAA still expects the players to be happy with tuition, room and meals – while the schools, administrators and coaches make millions of dollars.

March Madness is built on a system of free labor. Everyone gets rich except for the laborers – the players. 

The real lesson here. Let’s focus on the TV money for a minute. This year the NCAA is receiving about $800 million from American TV. If I asked you to add up all of the money that is generated from media rights by basketball leagues around the world – every league except those in the USA – the income is going to be less than $800 million.

Consider the Euroleague – the most important basketball league outside the USA – which is earning $36 million from TV this season.

To be clear: March Madness generates more TV money than the rest of the basketball world combined.

But that doesn’t mean March Madness produces the best basketball. Not by a long shot. The quality of play in the Euroleague is obviously superior to March Madness. Let’s break it down even further by looking at the leagues of Spain, Turkey, Russia, the ABA (Adriatic league), Italy, France, Greece, Germany, Australia, Israel, China, Argentina, Britain and so on. The top clubs from any of those leagues, as well as others, would clobber the best NCAA teams.

And any of these (mostly grownup) Euroleague stars would dominate March Madness:

You may be hearing me say this a lot as we get to know each other: Don’t get caught up in the money. Just because someone or something makes a lot of money, that doesn’t mean they are great. (I know, I know, I may lose my American citizenship for saying that!)

The quality of March Madness basketball is declining. NCAA basketball actually used to be played at a higher level. I’m talking about the years before March Madness started to create a lot of money. As recently as the 1970s, the top stars stayed in school for four years before moving onto the NBA, which enabled college teams to develop sophisticated styles of play.

Then the money arrived to the NBA, and the players started leaving college as soon as they could to turn pro. Today the most talented players stay in college for one year, and that’s only because they have no choice – the NBA refuses to draft players until one year after high school.

All of this new money has combined with the NCAA’s old rules to create an illegal business model for college basketball. The best players in college basketball are paid under the table. In fact, the FBI is investigating a number of college basketball teams for bribing players to attend their schools.

In the NBA, players share half of the money that the league generates. In other countries, the star players earn six-figure salaries worth $100,000 or more. But in NCAA Division 1, which is the second-richest basketball league in the world, the players are excluded. The coaches make millions, the athletic departments hire administrators and raise money for new facilities, but the players aren’t even allowed to market themselves on the side – no commercials, no advertising appearances or endorsement deals, nothing.

The NCAA system is corrupt.

If the NCAA is exploiting the players and the quality of basketball isn’t as good as it used to be, why do people watch? I watch because March Madness is terrific theater.

I hate the NCAA system that exploits its players, and I recognize the shortcomings of the teams. But the games are exciting. I love watching March Madness because it’s an all-or-nothing event in which you can never be sure of the winner – in part because the NCAA 3-point line is closer than the lines in FIBA or the NBA, which creates more opportunities for a hot-shooting underdog.

The other reason March Madness is so popular is because it is probably the biggest gambling event in America.

Gambling on sports is supposed to be illegal in the States. But everyone looks the other way when it comes to March Madness. Americans have wagered an estimated $9 billion on the current NCAA Tournament, which is twice as much as they bet on the Super Bowl.

President Barack Obama used to go on TV to detail his NCAA Tournament bracket. It was called Barackotology: 

By the way, president Donald Trump has declined to follow Obama’s tradition. No surprise there.

Students are supposed to be educated at college. There are a lot of great NCAA coaches who invest in their players by making sure they receive an education. But there are also a lot of schools that exploit the players.

Education is a difficult issue for NCAA teams because Division 1 basketball has turned into a full-time job for the players.

Maybe you remember Matt Bonner, the 3-point shooter who played a dozen seasons in the NBA (and helped win two championships with the San Antonio Spurs). He was one of those players with a terrific sense of humor, as you can see here:

In 1999, when Bonner enrolled at the University of Florida as a basketball player on scholarship, he hoped to become a doctor.

"I was taking engineering, calculus, organic chemistry, biology,'' he said. "I was taking really hard classes my freshman year, all math and science oriented. So I had a tough class schedule on top of a regular college basketball schedule of playing, practicing, weightlifting, traveling, individual training and stuff like that. I was killing myself trying to keep up in class and on the court. My schedule was insane. I was waking up at 7:30 and either doing something for school or basketball until I went to sleep at 11:30, and that was every day of the week, Monday through Friday. That year I got my only `B.' It was in chemistry. I was, like, there is no way I can keep this up for four years. It was impossible. 

Bonner wound up graduating from Florida with a degree in business, which was less demanding.

Playing basketball for a Division 1 team is a year-round priority for the players – even though the large majority of them will not be playing basketball professionally after they leave college.

Many scholarship players are encouraged to do the minimum academically. Obviously, a lot of those players have no interest in going to class or studying for tests. But it’s also true that they don’t like running wind-sprints or lifting weights – and coaches insist that they do those things.

It’s very simple. If the president of every Division 1 college decided that education was the priority, then the coaches would make sure that their players earn a meaningful education. But too many of the college presidents are happy to exploit the players because of all the money that can be made from basketball. After four years the players leave college without the education that could have helped them develop a career for the rest of their lives.

Most of the Division 1 colleges earn large amounts of money from their relationship with basketball, while too many players get very little that can help them. The players are exploited. The system is Madness, truly.

The future. Eventually the NBA is going to deepen its investment in the developmental league – its G League – to become a landing spot for the best young players. At the end of each regular season, in the days before the NBA playoffs when there are no NBA games on the schedule, the G League could put on its own knockout tournament featuring the future LeBrons, Kobes and Kevins. People will watch that. And no one will be exploited. Because the NBA players union will insist the players be paid.

As for the NCAA, will it make a priority of educating Division 1 players in a real way? Will the NCAA share its $1 billion with the players who actually generate it? It’s enough to drive you mad.