March Madness: Universities in the Entertainment Business

Buckle up. It’s time for that annual 21-day wild ride known as “March Madness,” a media event so lucrative that the name is actually copyrighted. For the next three weeks, millions of Americans will talk nonstop about brackets, seeds and upsets, and then remain glued to their TV or computer screens to see how their predictions hold up.

This 68-team tournament is a spectacular illustration of why commercialized sports, with all its problems, has an unshakeable hold on American higher education, and why universities do little to rein in its influence.

Universities with big-time sports are like the man in the old joke who complains that his brother thinks he’s a chicken. Asked why he doesn’t have the brother committed, the man explains, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Like this man, these universities choose to live with the contradictions inherent in big-time college sports rather than get out of the game.

For the last three years, I have been doing research to understand how and why big-time sports has become so deeply embedded in many American universities. Not surprisingly, I found that sports often dwarfs the intellectual side of universities. For instance, I looked at news coverage of 58 universities with leading athletics programs. Of the 600 articles that appeared over a year in The New York Times, 87 percent were about sports.

In addition, the head basketball coaches at these universities had more than three times the number of Google hits than their presidents. Again this is hardly surprising, considering that the basketball teams of these universities appear on television an average of 27 times a year.

Add to this mix intense fan loyalty and it is clear that millions of Americans are hooked on college sports. In Lexington, Ky., for instance, a third of those surveyed agreed that the following statement best described their own level of interest in Kentucky basketball: “I live and die with the Wildcats. I’m happy if they win and sad if they lose.”

College basketball’s popularity comes to a climax during March Madness, which begins on the Monday after “Selection Sunday” with the widespread ritual of filling out brackets for the office pool. To see if the widely reported estimates of lost productivity due to the tournament are fact or urban myth, I gathered daily figures from 78 research libraries across the country on the number of articles that patrons viewed on a widely used Web-based archive of academic journals. I found that usage dropped about 6 percent immediately after Selection Sunday. And, at universities with teams in the tournament, usage remained below normal as long as their teams kept winning.

The popularity of the tournament is easy to exploit for commercial gain, of course, since broadcasters are happy to sell advertising time and businesses want to advertise their products to as wide a viewership as possible . Ads accounted for more than a third of the 65 hours of TV coverage of the 2009 tournament. There were 2,600 conventional commercials, plus another 650 product placements, including sponsored game summaries and “brought to you by” announcements. Among the most heavily advertised brands: Chevrolet, McDonald’s and Bud Light.

The tournament’s commercial success has generated rapidly growing revenues for universities, by way of the NCAA. Earnings from TV alone, corrected for inflation, have increased by more than 400 percent over the last 20 years. Universities have eagerly taken these earnings and used them, as they have income from bowls and regular season telecasts, in a relentless effort to remain competitive in the revenue sports.

In order to field winning teams, universities have made clear-eyed decisions to compromise some traditional academic values. They relax admissions standards for revenue athletes, so that a third of the teams in last year’s tournament had graduation rates below 50 percent. They place enormous demands on athletes’ time, often playing games in distant cities or late at night. They require players to display logos for apparel companies and they sell replica jerseys bearing the numbers of star players in their bookstores.

For universities, these compromises are simply a cost of getting into this wildly popular, and lucrative, business. Don’t just blame market forces for the commercialization of college sports. It’s also the result of complicity by the universities, who are convinced they need the eggs.

Charles Clotfelter, a professor of public policy at Duke University, is the author of the forthcoming book "Big-Time Sports in American Universities," Cambridge University Press. This commentary was published in the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Raleigh News & Observer.