In recent years it has become fashionable to refer to the NCAA basketball Tournament -- or perhaps we should all start saying the NCAA basketball Tournaments, as the women's game has been building up steam almost as fast as the men's has been losing it -- as "America's premier sporting event." Or something like that. Who started that, anyway, the NCAA?
It's ironic that the tag is catching on precisely at a time when overall ratings are dropping, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the drop in ratings started a few years after the expansion of the tournament to 64 teams. That is simply too many for the casual fan to follow, and, increasingly, the smart fan knows that a tournament that invites 64 teams (65 this year) is by definition bogus: There aren't 64 teams whose performance in the regular season merits a shot at the title. At first, it was a novelty to see so many teams in all parts of the country invited to participate, but after 15 years or so of seeing their teams drubbed in the opening round even the most die-hard fans of undeserving long shots have started to catch on.
The truth is that even 32 teams would be a lot for such a tournament; perhaps 16 would be a lot. Can anyone remember a Tournament where even a 16th-ranked team -- I mean 16th-ranked by anyone's system -- won it all? It can and will be argued that that's not the point; the point is to create a spectacle that elevates the game. Well, OK, if you enjoy watching 16th seed underdogs getting stomped by 20- and 30-point margins, I'm not going to be the one to tell you that you're wasting your time. If you get your kicks every year from waiting for the first victory by a No. 16 over a No. 1, then this is the tournament for you.
Why, the more skeptical fan is entitled to ask, does the NCAA invite all those teams if realistically they don't have a chance to win? If, to put it bluntly, they haven't earned a title shot? And the answer, of course, is that this is how the NCAA keeps its hooks into its biggest source of cash. Every year the NCAA can guarantee some TV money to schools that might otherwise get very little, and thus command loyalty from a couple of hundred schools whose athletic departments are perilously close to the financial foul line. As for the big basketball powers, they can only go so far in complaining about the way the pie is cut; with the NCAA able to control the allegiance of so many smaller schools, any coach who gets rebellious could easily find himself without a schedule full of patsies to pad his record with. (Or did you think schools built up those gaudy 25-3 records by playing the L.A. Lakers?)
All of that being said, the NCAA Tournament does become spectacular when it gets down to 16 teams. But then it's pretty much like any other playoff or postseason in any other sport, so by that point it's not unique. What makes the Tournament such a cash cow for television is that by the end of the Tournament every basketball fan in the country is roped in -- it's possible to saturation-bomb your target audience.
And by the time we get to what March Madness is really all about, many fans have dropped out from a combination of exhaustion or boredom, or because it wasn't the Tournament as such they were interested in but simply the fortunes of their team. In other words, like every other big sporting event in modern American life, the NCAA Tournament presents us with a puzzling phenomenon of a spectacle that makes more advertising dollars as it loses viewers.
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Mazeroski good. Santo better
Even before I filed this column Tuesday I got about 30 e-mails asking me how I felt about Bill Mazeroski and the Hall of Fame. The former Pirates second baseman was voted into the Hall of Fame Tuesday by the Veterans Committee.
How I feel is this: I'm going to avoid the question. I'd rather focus on an injustice much greater than Mazeroski's 20 years of snubbing, and, as far as I'm concerned, greater than Pete Rose's banishment. Bill Mazeroski was a great fielder and weak hitter (.260 batting average, .302 on-base average, 138 home runs in 17 major league seasons). Ron Santo was a very good fielder and a tremendous hitter (.277 batting average, .366 on-base average, 342 home runs in 15 major league seasons). Mazeroski was voted to seven All Star teams; Santo was voted to nine. Mazeroski batted in more than 80 runs in a season once, while Santo did it 11 times; Mazeroski never hit .300 in a season, while Santo did it four times -- and led the league in on-base average twice. Please, do not tell me how much better a fielder Mazeroski was than Santo; he wasn't that much better, and even if he was he wasn't enough better to close that enormous gap in hitting.
Ron Santo is one of the 10 best, and probably one of the seven or eight best players in baseball history at the position that is least represented in the Hall of Fame. Ask me about Bill Mazeroski after you have explained to me why Ron Santo isn't in the Hall of Fame.
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Dale Earnhardt, cont'd
The Dale Earnhardt letters just keep on coming. The best one last week was from Tom Moore in Atlanta, who wrote: "You must at least acknowledge that one of the appeals of auto racing to the working man is that we are at least presented with examples of hard-working competitors who appreciate their fans and are grateful for the wealth and adulation they receive. Nothing puts me off in big-time sports more than a highly paid athlete who complains about his contract, refuses to acknowledge his fans, and walks around with a perpetual chip on his shoulder. Doesn't he understand what any of us would give to be in his shoes?" I cite Mr. Moore's letter, with his approval, because a similar sentiment was indicated in at least 300 e-mails I received. And I am happy to say that on this issue, NASCAR fans and I are in perfect agreement.