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I don’t have an NCAA tournament bracket this year.
That’s a statement that’s usually met with a cringe and a shudder and a look that says, “Oh God, he’s going to tell me how to live my life,” but I promise I don’t mean it that way. This isn’t some carefully planned approach to, like, divest myself of false rooting interests and appreciate the crystalline purity of amateur athletics, man.
In fact, it was pretty much a mistake. The work friend who had invited me to his brackets for the last few years is no longer at my place of work, and apparently that gets me cut off from his invitation list. And then, well, y’know, it’s been busy and one minor crisis leads to another, and the next thing you know there’s a bunch of people playing basketball and you’re sitting there, bracketless and sad.
(This is the part where the person talking usually takes a few minutes to really throw a leg over their high horse and get nice and situated up there before continuing, but just give me a second. )
The important—no, crucial—thing you need to know, though, is this: Watching the NCAA tournament without a bracket is, possibly, the height of idiocy. Because suddenly, without arbitrary rooting interests put into play, you realize that, hey, this is just a bunch of college basketball games that I ordinarily wouldn’t watch.
And let me tell you, that is a horrible realization.
The 68 teams in the tournament (yes, I’m including the “First Four” play-in games, so congratulations to the NCAA for making fetch happen) each played around 30 games this season. I follow Maryland basketball reasonably closely; I occasionally check in on the other local teams if time allows; I probably caught a few games while sitting in a bar or restaurant. Being as generous to myself as I can possibly be, I’d say that I watched all or a significant chunk of maybe 35 games this season, out of the roughly 2,000 played by tournament teams.
That’s not the surprising part. It’s a sad truth of parenthood (and non-parent adulthood, too) that the amount of time you can feasibly spend slumped on the couch staring slackjawed at sports just plummets. This is, quietly, one reason the NFL enjoys such widespread success: To follow your team, you only need to invest four hours, one day a week. That’s a manageable time commitment, even with a couple of kids to ferry around.
The surprising part isn’t me missing 1,950-plus regular season basketball games; it’s how we all get whipped into a frenzy of making a bunch of games into all-day appointment viewing every year just because of the tournament. If my experience is any indicator, it turns out that brackets are a big part of that.
I wouldn’t have been able to get away from work to watch most of the daytime games anyhow, but without a bracket to follow, there was no point in even monitoring them online. The first 10 or so games of this tournament were no different to me from the hundreds of games that preceded them: I might’ve missed some thrilling live moments, but with no personal stake, seeing the highlights was just fine.
In fact, even once I was free for the day, the imperative to watch the tournament was way, way down. The only reason I caught the University of Northern Iowa buzzer beater on Friday night was because it was on when I turned off Daredevil.
There’s this weird effect around NFL preseason games where we say “These games are frivolous and silly, but those games later are deadly serious and meaningful,” and it turns out the mystique around the NCAA tournament is just that in reverse. Without a bracket, March Madness becomes pretty much the same as any other month’s mild psychological disorder: I watch Maryland and highlights.
And it’s awful. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It does not make the game more pure or give you a greater appreciation of basketball. It is a decision that is bad enough to make one of the most exciting weekends of the sports calendar feel like mid-July.
Honestly, the only good news about this is that it’s probably the worst sports-related decision I’ll make all year, and it’s only March.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @matt_terl.
Photo by Dean Hochman / Flickr C.C.