Structure vs. Content: Why Do People Like the NCAA Tournament?

Ian Thomsen has a good column about why the NBA playoffs, despite their higher quality of play, are less exciting than the NCAA Tournament. It’s all about the brackets.

The quality of basketball in the NCAAs is as poor as it has been in 40 years.

The reason for the tournament’s popularity is its sudden-death format, which enables millions of people to bet on it with impunity (other than Rick Neuheisel). It’s a terrific event, but it has little to do with the talent of the players or the way they play, which by any historic standard is inferior.

He goes on to say that the NBA, by dragging its playoffs out over months with several best-of-seven rounds, accomplishes the exact opposite of college basketball by reducing the importance of each individual game and making watching less exciting. I doubt David Stern will switch to a sudden-death format any time soon, but it’s at least worth realizing this is the case.  Thomsen also says that the predictability of the NBA playoffs — teams seeded one or two in a conference have won the last 11 championships — isn’t always desirable.

Contrast these points with the discussion on Slate. Josh Levin opines:

CBS, and everyone who moans that college football needs a playoff, seems to think the greatness is structural — that shoving teams into a grid and watching who shakes out is inherently rewarding. If you think that’s the case, I sentence you to three weeks of watching the women’s tournament — throwing together a bracket can’t add sizzle to a boring product.

The real reason the NCAA Tournament is entertaining is, of course, the content. Major college basketball is a great sport: The games are close and full of violent mood swings, and (as I wrote yesterday) it’s obvious that the players sincerely care about winning.

First, the college football point is erroneous; people who push for a college football playoff want one not necessarily because it will be more exciting but because it’s simply better to have a playoff than not to have one when you are trying to crown a national champion. More to the Thomsen argument is Levin’s point about the women’s tournament. I wholeheartedly agree that the women’s tournament sucks, but so would a tiddleywinks championship that followed the bracket format. When there are two events of closer comparison in quality — like men’s pro and college basketball — then the format really does make a difference.


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