10:00pm

Tue March 8, 2011
Sweetness And Light

March Madness: Fans Love The Knockout Round

This has probably been the most ... well, let's be kind and just say "ordinary" ... the most ordinary college basketball season. First of all, as the Super Bowl drifts into February and NFL television ratings soar, poor little college basketball gets ignored for longer and longer. Didn't you have the feeling this year that Dick Vitale didn't arrive in our consciousness until, like a bald Cupid, on Valentine's Day?

And there have been no outstanding teams, and only one player who's caught anybody's attention. That's Jimmer Fredette of Brigham Young. Of course, it helps that he has a neat name and is white, which is always a novelty when it comes to good American basketball players.

So far, in fact, the thing about college basketball that has most intrigued the sporting fancy is that one of Fredette's teammates got thrown off the BYU squad for sleeping with his girlfriend. Did Mike Huckabee turn the lovers in?

But, notwithstanding that college basketball has not only been under the radar but "outside the tweet" this season, suddenly this Sunday, when 68 mostly unknown teams are slotted for the NCAA tournament, millions of citizens will rediscover the game and fill out their brackets. Why is March Madness so popular?

Well, I believe the main reason is a simple one. It's the largest national single-elimination competition anywhere in the world. Every game — all 67 of them — the losing team is sent home. Season over, voted off the island. TKO: Team Knockout. In a nation that prides itself on second chances, there are none.

No We'll get 'em tomorrow, back home. No interminable seven-game series. The finality of the NCAAs is as vicarious for us watching as it is terminal for the losers.

Likewise, while the soccer World Cup starts off with a round-robin, it really grabs the globe once single elimination begins. Our professional football is too brutal to have anything but one-game showdowns — but nothing is more popular.

And do you remember last year when the U.S. and Canada played for the Olympic hockey gold medal — one game. Americans who didn't know a hockey puck from a badminton birdie got hooked. One game, winner take all, losers walk.

Has either the National Hockey League or the National Basketball Association ever pondered this: a one-game championship? Sure, for the early rounds, play those interminable seven-game series where the same two teams give us athletic Groundhog Days, but when you get to the finals: one game. Scheduled in advance. Neutral site.

Can you imagine it: Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James, just one time. I guarantee you that single-elimination game would bring more attention and more profit to the NBA or the NHL than those protracted series now do. Less is more.

But for now, ladies and gentlemen, if you will just come into the tent, college basketball is finally about to begin again. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.