Explaining March Madness to a Space Alien

Imagine a visitor from a faraway planet landed in your backyard, knowing nothing of Earth's customs, especially March Madness. How would you explain this bizarre annual custom?

Alien: What is this "March Madness"?

You: It's a big basketball tournament: specifically the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament. 68 teams are all battling for the championship. Win or go home. "One Shining Moment". Anything can happen. It's madness baby!

Basketball?

Oh, that's a game people play, in teams of five. Each team tries to throw a ball into the other team's basket. The team who scores the most baskets wins. It all started with a peach basket. Never mind. There are lots of complicated rules, but that's the basic idea.

Who are the teams?

The teams represent colleges: schools here in the United States for young adults. Students at the colleges are also players on the teams. In fact most players choose their college specifically to play on the basketball team. See, the colleges all compete to get the best players to attend their school. Many players go to college for free because of how good they are at basketball.

So there must be big prizes? Are the games used to settle disputes? Allocate territory? Mating preferences? Political and economic power?

Not exactly. Colleges can become more popular, more prestigious, and make money by winning the tournament, as can the people involved in the games. But mostly it's about entertaining the public.

Entertainment. I think I saw a movie about this. So everybody goes to big public arenas to watch the games?

Well, a few people do, but many millions more watch on television -- in their homes, at restaurants and bars, or on phones and computers at work.

Millions? And somebody records all the games and puts them on television?

Millions! So many people want to watch that television networks compete to show the games. The networks pay more than $700 million dollars a year just for the right to broadcast the games. The tournament is big news. All the attention takes a huge hit on worker productivity. Men even schedule vasectomies around the tournament!

Wow! People really like basketball! College basketball players must be really famous. And rich!

Famous, yes: the best players are household names. Rich, no. In fact they're not allowed to make any money playing basketball. Two years ago the tournament's most outstanding player said sometimes he didn't have enough money for food. But after they finish playing in college, the best players can make lots of money playing professional basketball in a place called the NBA.

That seems a little strange.

It does, and actually it's a big controversy. On one hand, players get an opportunity to go to school for free while developing their skills with tremendous resources and support that otherwise wouldn't be available to them. On the other hand, a lot of other people make a lot of money off those players' skills, and sometimes that doesn't seem fair. There are a number of lawsuits pending.

Why do the networks spend so much money anyway? Do people pay them to watch the games?

Most people don't pay to watch the games, and actually most of a broadcast isn't even the game. It's analysis (people talking about the game, critiquing it, and predicting what's going to happen), and of course the commercials. That's how the networks make money!

Commercials?

Much of the broadcast is devoted to creative advertising, trying to convince viewers to buy products. Corporate sponsors put promotional advertising for their products everywhere. They'll spend nearly $1.5 million for a 30 second advertisement, and tens or hundreds of millions to put their name on a venue or uniform. Most of the products have nothing to do with basketball. The biggest sponsors are selling cars, communications, food, alcohol, insurance, and financial services. And the advertising is hugely effective. Sponsors make millions in return from these commercials. It's a big boost for commerce.

So people buy these products during the games?

Sometimes, yes, but the bigger value is building brand recognition.

All because of basketball?

Yep! Even though most people watching never really played basketball, and don't know much about it, they love watching! It's really more about social community: watching the games with friends, family, and colleagues, eating food, having drinks, and of course, the brackets!

Brackets?

Everybody fills out a bracket (or 2, or 5, or 10), predicting who will win the games in the tournament. Brackets are big contests in themselves that get really competitive. Many workplaces have a "pool" where workers wager money on their bracket predictions. All the major media outlets have bracket contests with big prizes. This maniac even predicts who will win based on the team's mascots. Gambling on the tournament (an estimated $9 billion in 2015) makes it interesting, and it really drives the business!

So if they players don't get paid, who gets the $700-plus million a year that the networks pay? Where does all that money go?

The colleges do, through an organization called the NCAA. Some of the money goes to scholarships that pay for the basketball players' school. A lot goes to the people who organize and manage the teams and tournament (including coaches, athletic directors, and the NCAA president, who can make millions of dollars per year). More goes to facilities, infrastructure, and resources for the teams. Colleges who win more tournament games get more money. But most of the money actually pays for other sports.

Wait, other sports?

Oh yeah, besides the 1,000 or so men who play in the tournament, there are nearly half a million athletes at colleges across the country who play all kinds of games -- football, soccer, hockey, swimming, diving, track & field, volleyball, golf, tennis, wrestling, lacrosse, equestrian, gymnastics, skiing, shooting, bowling, squash, water polo, baseball, softball, rugby, rowing and fencing. The NCAA actually sponsors more than three dozen sports.

Half a million athletes? Three dozen sports? Do they have tournaments too?

Of course. Every sport has a championship.

And everybody watches those too? More madness, analysis, commercials and brackets?

Well no. Everybody watches football in the fall, and a few watch baseball in the spring. But most of the other sports are pretty much ignored.

What? Why's that? Are the other sports not as interesting or popular?

No, they're popular too. Professional tennis, golf, baseball and volleyball are broadcast regularly. Some colleges show the other sports on dedicated networks. Sports like track and field, swimming and gymnastics have huge viewership and generate billions of dollars in broadcast revenue during the Olympics. And actually, there's an almost identical tournament for women's college basketball, but for some reason it doesn't get anywhere near as much broadcast coverage.

Sounds pretty chauvinistic.

Yeah, you could probably say that.

You Earthlings sure are an interesting bunch. Where do I find one of these brackets?

Try the NCAA, ESPN, CBS, or any other major media outlet.

Thanks, I think.

Let the madness begin.