NCAA First Four: It Ain’t Real ’til the Office Pool Says So

Like many sports fans, I consider the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament the top sporting event on TV. Sure, the last few Super Bowls have been exciting, and college bowl games have their moments. But in terms of sheer fun, they just don’t compare with “The Big Dance.” Certainly, some of that is due to the event’s three-week duration. But even more important is the All-American tradition of the office pool. Let’s face it, office pools — like presidential elections, gas prices and American Idol — are a common bond across America, and they aren’t just an “office” thing either — just about every dorm, bar or even church group has one.

Participating in an NCAA pool is a rite of passage, bringing together hoops zealots with those who couldn’t differentiate Big East from Big Sky. And while tension builds as the tournament field narrows, the interest is undeniably greatest during the opening rounds, when everyone’s brackets are still intact and the wildest upsets occur. In that respect, the NCAAs are different from almost any other televised sporting event, since the most fascinating viewing comes at the beginning. With games going non-stop from Thursday morning on, the first weekend is a whirlwind of buzzer-beaters, breakout performances and David-beats-Goliath upsets. By Sunday night, no-names have become household names, Cinderellas have danced and brackets have been busted. The “March Madness” slogan is definitely not contrived.

This year, however, things are different. The field has expanded from 64 teams to 68 and the tournament format has changed…at least sort of. Since 2001, the tournament has actually included 65 teams, with two automatic qualifiers from small-school conferences staging a “play-in game” two nights early for the right to get demolished by the #1 overall seed on opening day.  Since no play-in game winner has ever won a “regular” NCAA tournament game, office pools don’t include it; brackets start with the 64-team field on Thursday. Even the NCAA and their network partner, CBS, have mercifully avoided over-hyping this Tuesday prelim.

But not anymore. After years of expansion talk, the NCAA has finally brought additional “tournament-worthy” (i.e., power conference) teams into the field, necessitating three additional play-in games. Seizing the opportunity to wring even more bling from this golden goose (:30 sec spots in tournament broadcasts range from $200k to $1.5 million) the NCAA and CBS have branded the new play-in games “The First Four.” Correspondingly, CBS has assigned its top broadcasting crew to cover them and both CBS and the NCAA are insisting that the tournament officially starts on Tuesday, not Thursday. It’s a BIG DEAL.

So is anyone buying all this? The reaction is decidedly mixed. While Ad Age reports that advertising inventory for the tournament (including First Four games) is almost entirely sold out) few media buyers I know had any interest in the preliminary contests. “The ‘real’ NCAA tournament is a great vehicle for most male-oriented brands,” said Buyer X. “But I wouldn’t touch those play-in games, particularly on truTV. Ads there were likely just bundled into a larger overall tournament buy.”

The fans I queried pretty much bore those sentiments out. Few, if any, actually watched the First Four games, although many searched them out simply to find truTV on their cable package prior to the start of Thursday’s games. (NOTE: Its channel 220 and 1220 on Time Warner in Milwaukee.)

Perhaps most telling is the way office pools are treating The First Four: basically, they are ignoring it. Pundits, bloggers and barstool bracketologists aren’t ignoring it, though — they are loudly bemoaning its effect on “real” office pools. Their rationale? Since half of the First Four teams are underacheivers from power conferences, it is conceivable they have the talent to pull a second round upset, unlike Arkansas-Pine Bluff, McNeese State or other previous play-in game winners. Thus, many office pool participants are waiting until Wednesday night (when First Four winners are finalized) to make their picks.  That means more pools will be submitted on Thursday morning just prior to the brackets’ closing…and ultimately, it probably means fewer pools overall get turned in.

So will The First Four help or hurt the NCAA tournament in the long run? It’s hard to say. Certainly, one could argue anything that hurts the popularity of office pools hurts the tournament, as could anything that strikes fans as marketing department BS. (“First Four…or Worst Four?” read one widely published newspaper column.) My guess is the skepticism will diminish (and office pools will become inclusive) when, and only when, one of the First Four teams goes on to win in the second round.  After all, everyone loves watching Cinderella dance — regardless of what door she came in.

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