March Sadness

It is extremely difficult to care about March Madness this year

March 18, 2021

Brett Wilhelm

I used to write about college basketball full-time. I live in North Carolina's research triangle, the epicenter of the sport. I have traveled to far flung locales like—gasp!—Minneapolis to cover games. I have been to a Final Four. I have devised a shortcut system to help win March Madness pools, and it even works (sometimes). The only reason you're reading anything I write is that ten years ago a Very Big Media Dude liked something I wrote in my college basketball blog. I say all this not as some weird brag, but simply because if you took the lump sum of American humanity and ran some calculations, I would be among the most likely to care about March Madness.

And yet, emphatically, I do not. I do not care. I can't make myself care, and if my alma mater (Duke, shut up) was actually in the field, I can promise you that I still wouldn't care. Temporarily, at least, I am dead to the charms of the bracket.

My inbox at this exact moment is stuffed with emails from friends and acquaintances running various kinds of Madness pools. There are survivor pools (four, at last check), weird novelty pools, straight-up bracket pools, and even one batshit crazy pool by a guy who has people pick the NCAA, the NIT, the CBI, and CIT brackets. Usually, I enter all of these, losing somewhere around $150 each March. It's very exciting. Now, I see them and am overcome by an immediate wave of fatigue...the kind of weak, tired sensation you feel when someone asks you to iron clothes. I've only managed to do one, and that was basically at gunpoint.

The question is, why has college basketball suffered to such a degree? I'm not the only one left empty by what is reliably one of the most exciting sports weeks of the year, and like a lot of things in this past year, it's not easy to understand. I don't think any sports have exactly thrived during the pandemic, but some are hanging in pretty well, golf among them. Football did fine, the NBA is generating interest proportional to what you'd expect in a down year, and people seem excited about baseball. Hell, I can't get enough of Canadian curling.

Here are a few theories about why college hoops is uniquely screwed:

1. The product is terrible, and if you're going to spend your precious pandemic time watching sports, it can't be sports that are a dull grind-fest. It's considerably worse this year because of reduced practice time and fewer games.

2. The bluebloods all stink. I don't think Duke being in the tourney would save my interest, but when Duke, Carolina, and Kentucky are all pretty terrible and your 2-seeds include Houston and Alabama, interest will be down.

3. The NCAA sucks, and more and more people understand it. College football will survive because it's so massive to begin with and the game is better, but it's easy to tune out college hoops when you're basically just watching indentured servants play bad basketball.

4. Teams keep getting infected, have throughout the year, and there's no indication that the tournament will go smoothly. Why invest your energy in something when midnight could strike for any given Cinderella because of a positive COVID test?

Whatever the cause, March Madness is just bringing ennui this year, and that's sad, because from early childhood to two years ago, it reliably brought me joy. Next year, it might again. But for the second straight year, the whole thing just feels depressing and I'm not even sure I'll tune in for a single game. I promised myself I wouldn't end this post with a very cringe-y "March Sadness" pun, but then again, I don't even care enough to invent something more clever. It's a pool of Sadness, and we're all in the deep end.