e NCAA’s Division I basketball tournament, affectionately nicknamed March Madness, continues to do what it does best – grab the attention of sports fans across North America and not let go
With 68 different college basketball teams poised to challenge one another in the elimination-style tournament, throngs of fans will fill college stadiums across the United States to support their school.
Last year’s March Madness championship game between Butler and Connecticut drew over 70,000 people to the Reliant Stadium in Houston Texas. The average attendance of a Kentucky NCAA basketball game is over 23,000 – more than the average NHL game – while many Canadian universities fail to even report attendance statistics for their home games.
But, why is that? Why are college sports in America so successful? And why aren’t they in Canada?
“I think there are a lot of communities in the United States that don’t have professional teams to branch out to. They are much more prone to follow their college,” said Peter Tiernan of BracketScience.com, an online source for statistics and information on NCAA basketball.
Tiernan resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan and holds season tickets for Michigan Wolverines games. He’s a freelance sports writer, and he’s been to his fair share of college games – including a few held here in Canada. In fact, after attending a game at Western University, he was really concerned with the turnout.
“They’re struggling to get a crowd,” he said. “At half time, you look across the stadium and there’s just not a lot of people there. It felt like a big high school game.”
In other words, Canadian college sports lack a major following. And without that following, they lack that full-house atmosphere. And without that, it’s almost passionless.
“Our passion goes so far back,” he said. “People affiliate with their college. They stick with that affiliation and I think there’s a lot of promotion and money behind college sports in America.”
And you can really see that passion shine through during March Madness. It brings students, alumni, employees and local residents together. It really is more than simply rooting for the home team.
“College basketball definitely rivals pro basketball,” he said. “College basketball is passionate. The games are much more intense, and some might even say that the NCAA tournament is better than the Super Bowl, as it goes on for three weeks. Even if you’re not really a sports fan, there’s still that culture. And, frankly, I like the college game. It’s more pure. Especially in basketball.”
Pure – it’s a good word, really. It perfectly describes the players and their mindsets. College sports take place well before the seven-figure contracts, the shoe endorsements and the lavish team travel. There’s no trade deadlines and no free agency. College athletes view their sports as exactly what they are – games.
“People look back to college and high school and there’s a purity with the game that they can affiliate with,” he said. “These people are close to something that you could maybe achieve, while the professional game is more of a business. College sports is a business too, but we can delude ourselves that it’s a little bit purer.”
It seems so simple. Go to school, express team spirit, stay in touch with your alma mater. Tiernan, though, insists that it’s not that straightforward – that there is actually no special formula for Canada to boost the public’s interest in a team or a league.
“It has to come organically,” he said. “It’s also a numbers game. There are 345 teams in Division I basketball, so Americans are bound to affiliate with one of them. There’s going to be a team within a 50-mile radius from where any American is. Is it that way in Canada? No. That’s part of it. There are just not a lot of teams.”
In 2009, Duke generated over $29,000,000 in revenue. CBS blogger and contributing writer for ESPN.com Eric Angevine feels that the identity that college teams possess helps drive interest, revenue and attendance.
“If you’re in Alabama, there’s a difference between someone who loves the University of Alabama and somebody who loves Auburn,” Angevine said. “They are both in the same state, but it’s a huge part of their identity whether they went to the school or not. I would actually bet that the majority of people who love Auburn or Alabama probably didn’t go to college at all. They just live in Alabama and identify with them regionally.”
Angevine also believes that this identification and support for NCAA sports goes far beyond school spirit.
“I think the game day experience has a lot to do with the specific school,” he said. “For one thing, college basketball is our feeder system for our professional sports. We never developed sport academies or developmental systems like they have in Europe. Our two most popular sports – football and basketball – are things that grew organically.”
Another belief as to why the sports are so successful in terms of viewership and attendance is that, with several teams making it, more fan bases are involved early. There’s also the fact that some of the not-so-great teams participate – something that all sports fans love.
“The NCAA tournaments are unusual because people tune in to the first couple of rounds because they want to see upsets,” Angevine said. “People like that ‘David Vs. Goliath’ thing. But after that, they really like to see it come down to traditional powers.”
While NCAA hockey, basketball and football become increasingly more popular in the United States, it will take time for the Canadian college markets to develop their own identity. And when we do it, it’s clear that we have to do it organically. However, with the right support from students and fans, time will shape Canadian college sports. With a little luck, our teams will, one day, rival college sports in America.