March Madness: The American Way

The NCAA Tournament is the most American of all sports institutions.  Yes, even more than NASCAR.


Here in the U.S. of A., we are often very results oriented.  The process that leads to those results often gets forgotten or lost in the shuffle, or even disregarded in some systemic way.  For example, our presidential elections are decided by an abstruse system that officially turns a blind eye to a candidate who wins the popular vote if he or she loses the electoral college.  There’s a system in place that is used to determine a winner, and if someone else believes that it would have been more “fair” to crown a different winner, the system pays no mind to such beliefs.  This idea is never more true than in our sports leagues.

We are a playoffs country. 

The idea that the champion of a sport should be determined by grouping together a set of teams and “empirically” determining a winner by paring away team after team is so ingrained in our national psyche that our collective sense of “fairness” has been molded around it.  “We just need to get into the playoffs,” countless athletes and coaches have told reporters, “and then the slate will be wiped clean and we can do the rest from there.”  The implication is that even though the regular season has not gone perfectly or even well, and even though many other teams might be higher in the standings, the athlete or coach still believes that the team can turn it on when it matters and snatch a championship.  The sentiment behind these common statements is very similar to the age-old “American dream” of the possibility of prosperity and upward mobility and the pursuit of happiness — “fairness” is guaranteeing the chance to make something of oneself (or of one’s team) regardless of the past.  An NFL wild card team can (and often does) win the Super Bowl just like a 1-seed can.  An 8 seed in the NHL playoffs can go all the way just like a dominant regular season team can.  The systems build in some mild advantages (usually home field/court/ice) for the better seeded team, but the top teams are placed fundamentally on the same plane as the teams who sneak into the playoffs.

March Madness is the epitome of this phenomenon.  Not only is it a single elimination tournament in a sport that often employs best of seven series (as in the NBA playoffs), but a team has to win six straight do-or-die games to win the title.  Not only that, but they generally have to do so in neutral locations even if they have better seeds.  The games are only forty minutes long, which benefits potential upstart teams because they only have to hold off the favorites for that long.  The 30+ game regular season factors into the tournament seeding, of course, but in many ways, it is rendered fully irrelevant once the Madness starts.  No. 1 seed Florida has to do essentially the exact same thing as Wofford to win the title.  The entire tournament is a wild exercise in the precise image of “fairness” described above — let a field of 68 teams in the door, throw out their regular season records entirely, and let them pursue the American dream.

All four major sports leagues in the U.S. have robust playoff systems.  The NFL playoffs have inflated over the years to include several wild card teams and first round byes.  The Major League Baseball playoffs have expanded several times and now include play-in playoff games before the wild card round.  The NBA and NHL both stage two-month long postseasons which include more than half (16 of 30) of all the teams in the league, and are essentially second seasons. College football fans have been loudly and desperately clamoring for a playoff system for years, essentially because it doesn’t seem “fair” to not have one.

The degree to which this is a definitively (although not uniquely) American phenomenon becomes clear when we compare the American leagues to the other most popular sports leagues around the world.  For example, as recently as 2004, the vibrant Nippon Professional Baseball league in Japan determined a winner by simply sticking the best team from each league into the Japan Series without any kind of postseason bracket, which is similar to how MLB ran its pennant races way back in the day.

Soccer, well established as the most popular sport in the world by a large margin, has its four most prominent soccer leagues employ non-playoff systems for determining the yearly champion.


In the English Premier League, each of the 20 teams plays the 19 other teams twice, once in each home stadium, for a total of 38 matches.  At the end of those matches, only eight teams are eliminated, and the other 12 out of 20 teams are placed into a two-month postseason consisting of four consecutive grueling best of seven rounds to determine the champion.  Wait, no.  That’s the American way.  Rather, at the end of the 38 matches, the team with the best record is deemed the best team and the champion.  That’s it.  No brackets, no playoffs, no postseason.  The three lowest placing teams are relegated into the next highest league competition, the Football League Championship.

Is that system unfair, or does it simply reward the team that performed the best over the course of the season, which the American leagues fail to do?

In the Italian Serie A, the 20 teams play a similar 38 matches, except the latter 19 are played in the exact same order as the first 19 (but in the opposite stadium).  As in England, the end of season standings determine the league champion, and the lowest three teams are relegated to Serie B.  If two teams end the season tied for first place, the head-to-head record is the tiebreaker.  If that does not determine a winner, then goal differential decides the champ.  If the teams remain tied, only then will they face each other in a neutral field playoff.

In the German Bundesliga and Spanish La Liga, once again, the teams compete in a double round robin, playing each other team once home and once away.  The results of these matches determines the winner.  In the Bundesliga, two teams being tied at the end of the season brings about a cascade of potential tiebreakers, which includes, in order, (1) goal differential, (2) total goals scored, (3) points earned in head to head matches, (4) goals scored in head to head matches, (5) goals scored in the away game of head to head matches, and finally (6) total goals scored in away games throughout the season.  Only then, if two teams are still tied after all six tiebreakers, will a one-game neutral site playoff be staged.  Not surprisingly, the one game playoff has never been necessary in the 51 year history of the Bundesliga.  In La Liga, the tiebreaking structure is similarly robust: (1) head to head goal differential, (2) goal differential, (3) total goals scored, and then (4) a unique “fair play” system whereby teams are penalized for yellow cards received, red cards received, suspensions, ejections, and even fan misconduct (i.e., nothing to do with the players on the field) and stadium closures  (i.e., nothing to do with the game at all).  If those do not decide a winner, a playoff game is staged as a last gasp.

These leagues exhaust every legitimate option before resorting to having a miniature one-game version of the system that U.S. fans take for granted.  The U.S., on the other hand, has college basketball teams play 30+ games and then wipe the slate clean as they enter a lengthy single elimination tournament.  Which is more “fair?”  One’s answer to that question is clearly reflective of one’s culture.  Both have their merits and their questionable aspects.  One might say that U.S. fans need the action movie drama of a blockbuster postseason tournament, while European fans are plenty satisfied by league championships that might be determined weeks before the season ends.  Maybe European fans are less addicted to drama, or maybe it has something to do with European teams tapping into their cities’ nationalistic and cultural identity more, which imbues each team with more meaning than a won/lost record.  I have no idea.  It’s probably both, as well as many other factors.  It almost seems that if it were logistically possible for international competitions like the World Cup to be contested by way of a round robin without any knockout stages at all, many (non-Yankee) countries would prefer it.

The role of money in all this cannot be ignored.  March Madness is a huge cash cow.  The American leagues pull in major revenue from the heightened interest that the playoffs bring, which is why all four leagues have expanded their postseasons so much over the years.  Does this mean that the sporting powers-that-be in Europe care less about money than they do here?  Hardly — anyone who even casually follows the massive multi-million Euro transfer fees of top soccer stars and the conspiracy theories involving payola for FIFA officials would scoff at such a notion.  The money just flows in different channels, it seems.  Peek at the corporate logos on Premier League jerseys to get a hint at one of those channels — a casual American observer might think that the players on Chelsea are actually playing for the Samsung Club, or that the Arsenal team name is actually the Fly Emirateses.

In the U.S. leagues, we presently bristle at the thought of pasting corporate sponsorship logos on players’ jerseys,1 but it’s a real money maker — Aon paid a reported £20 million ($32.5 million at the time) for only four years of Manchester United sponsorship.  Here in the U.S., our leagues arbitrarily limit the corporate sponsorship to stadiums, like the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, and both the American Airlines Arena (Miami) and the American Airlines Center (Dallas) in the same league (which faced off for American Airlines supremacy in the 2011 NBA Finals).  Back in England, the EPL stadiums generally have traditional names like Goodison Park, Old Trafford, or Boleyn Ground.2  There is clearly much inconsistency and arbitrariness on both sides of the pond as to how money should be made, and the politics and decision making behind all these revenue streams and sponsorship rules should probably be their own post (or book).  For our purposes, I do think cultural ideas of “fairness” have played a role in the presence or absence of playoffs, and the revenue streams each country allows have been molded around those ideas to a large degree.

The point of this is not to make value judgments about either construction of “fairness,” but simply to point out the real difference in the underlying sensibilities of the two.  The real winners are the fans.  It can’t be denied that the NCAA Tournament brings major drama and excitement, and just like top flight European club soccer, it’s a damn good product.  May the best  top  greatest  finest  last team win!


  1. One exception is NASCAR.  Tony Stewart often has looked much more like a Home Depot or Office Depot employee than a professional racecar driver.
  2. Times do change, of course.  The old Highbury, the home of Arsenal since 1913, was replaced in 2006 by the £390 million Emirates Stadium.

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