Monday, March 16, 2009

Madness in our Community

Culturally, are Canadians merely Americans who pride themselves on - and define themselves by - not being American? Or is this madness? Well, folks, the Madness is nearly here.

Many of you know what it is and why everyone gets so mad about it. Okay, here's the deal: the "madness" refers to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, which takes place for three weeks in March and April. It involves 64 teams and is, arguably, the best example of amateur sport this side of the Olympics. For a Canadian's information, in Downtown America, the worshiping of sport goes a little something like this:

1. NFL Football
2. NCAA Football
3. NBA Basketball
4. NCAA Basketball
47. NHL Hockey (ranked after bowling, darts, poker, and the WNBA)

Weird, eh? Hockey barely makes the top 50! Moreover, this tournament - this madness - is unequivocally huge. Hundreds of millions of American and Canadian viewers tune in to watch and Las Vegas usually covers well over $300 million in legal bets and, get this, over $2.5 billion is spent annually in office pools and illegal gambling. Nearly half (41%) of Americans watch the tournament and over one quarter (27%) participate in an office pool which results in nearly $3.8 billion in lost productivity. The above picture is a pretty moderate example of how seriously schools (and all the alumni, townsfolk and administration) take this sporting event. Heck, whenever Arkansas plays, Bill Clinton shows up to cheer on his team!

Needless to say, whether it's participating in an office pool to choose the unlikely winner of the 64 team tournament or collaborating with your high school basketball team to pick the perfect bracket and do a little trash-talking or slathering on some paint, funky outfits and intoxicating yourself en route to actually attending a game, this event is a perfect and amazing exercise of community. It's also a harbinger of Americanization for Obamatown's northern neighbour, Canada. Data is hard to come by, but recent findings show that millions of Canadians tune in to watch the games, compete for the title of "lost productivity per capita" and spend millions of dollars in office pools. Thing is, not only does Canadian talent make up less than .1% of the players and coaches in the tournament, but we have our own university basketball playoffs here! Sure, only eight teams compete in the CIS Men's Basketball Championships, which means it lasts, like, a week. And sure only, like, four of the players can dunk. But, come on, are we really so starved for basketball talent that we need to look to American players, commentators, coaches, fans, and advertisers for athletic entertainment?

Yes. We are. March Madness is an over-indulgent spectacle built on the backs of some of the hardest workers in the world. Winning it all has as much to do with luck as it does with mental and physical preparation. And it brings people from every race, culture, socio-economic-background, intellectual-level, and profession together to celebrate victory and mourn defeat (except on the Chris Rock says, "we're 10% of the population and 99% of the Final Four!"). And it's a beautiful thing. No offense, Canada, but Hockey wishes it had as much clout in this country. And, for the record, Rome would be jealous of these games.

American college basketball is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Whether its ticket sales, merchandising, advertising revenue, or television rights, the schools and the NCAA rake in very healthy - if not slightly gluttonous - profit. The student players, aside from scholarships, sweet hotel accommodations and a meager stipend, see no part of the revenue (a recent New York Times article argues that much of this process is reflective of "modern slavery" in the United States). There's no salary-cost, like in the professional leagues. [Insert comment about this reflecting American Corporatism here]. Communities go to war during this event, too. Bright colours, paint, songs, chants, filthy limericks, and dastardly pranks are all part of the madness. And in the end, only one community can win it all.

Other than being invented by a Canadian, the March Madness basketball tournament has little or nothing to do with the Canadian community. But we watch. OUr networks carry it. We can get Pay Per View packages for $100. Why does this happen? Why do millions of Canadian sports fans look South of the border for their basketball-stimulus package? Well, for starters, the talent is greater and the drama-of-sport plays out on a much, much grander stage. Like with Obama's administration, Canadians really, really want to be a part of this installment of the American Dream. More Canadians play basketball than hockey* and more Canadians watch American Idol than Canadian Idol. This is big sport, big business, big community. And it leads me to just one unfortunate conclusion: we might live in Canada, but this is definitely North America.

Whether it's Obamania, House, the Superbowl, Hollywood, Springsteen, or College Basketball, we're all mad about somethin' non-Canadian.

And, quite honestly, I feel a little weird about it. Not good or bad. Weird. How do you feel?


*definitely more play soccer than hockey, and, since basketball is the second most popular sport on Earth after soccer, I'm going out on a limb and calling this a "fact" may or may not be true, but it's from the gut!

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