Baracketology

            March Madness has officially begun, an annual event that perfectly combines the American love for underdogs, heroes, sports, and gambling.  The effects on productivity lost due to distracted workers during March Madness has been estimated to cost American companies over $1 billion. Experts and amateurs alike will attempt to predict the specific course that the 64 teams will make through the bracket.   March Madness has developed beyond just a basketball championship, and is a major social occurrence in our society. This event is treated like a great national holiday of sorts and has achieved recognition all the way at the top.  The past 6 years ESPN has incorporated “Baracketology” as an annual segment, featuring the President filling out his projections for the NCAA Championship bracket.  This segment has been extremely popular, though it has drawn criticism to the President for focusing on a seemingly unimportant issue.  There is, however, a very long history of Presidential involvement in popular sports in our society.

            President Theodore Roosevelt was known for being a major outdoorsman and had very strong opinions on the popular sports that were spreading across the country.  His participation in football and wrestling were well known, but his evaluation of baseball, the national pastime and most popular sport in the country was more wary.  Roosevelt described baseball as “mollycoddle”, harsh words that he would not back down from.  Presidents throughout American history have been frequently seen at baseball games and other sporting events for reasons both political and entertainment related.

            Other presidents were more active participants in popular sports during their youth before the presidency.  Many presidents were student athletes during their time in college, but few were as proficient as President Gerald Ford.  As a star offensive lineman for the University of Michigan football team, President Ford won back to back National Championships in 1932 and 1933.  He carried his enthusiasm with him to the White House, and requested that the U.S. Naval Band play Michigan’s fight song “The Victors” in lieu of the traditional “Hail to the Chief” when he approached.  President Nixon was a three sport athlete in college, and was extremely involved as a fan of sports, to the point that he embroiled himself in a major controversy in college football in 1969.  President Nixon was attending the end of year matchup between undefeated Texas and undefeated Arkansas, and presented a “National Champions” plaque that would be given to the victor, much to the chagrin of also undefeated Penn State.  Nixon’s decision was further damning in the eyes of some, as the Texas-Arkansas game featured two teams composed of all-white players, the final major American sporting event to do so, and Nixon’s choice encouraged Penn State to refuse to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl later that year, citing the university’s (and the state’s) poor policies relating to race.

            President George W. Bush was another President whose sports involvement was tied to the state of Texas, as the 46th President of the United States was previously the owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.  Many presidents have weighed in on or participated heavily in sports, and President Obama’s college basketball enthusiasm is just the next piece of that tradition. 

            Sports bring us as citizens together.  Why can’t they help bring our Commanders in Chief a bit closer too?

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America’s Obsession with March Madness; What’s All the “Bracket” About?

March Madness is a very strange American societal phenomenon.  When the NCAA basketball tournament is underway, millions of Americans drop what they’re doing and spend hours upon hours watching grown men, bouncing a little orange ball, trying to throw it through a netted hoop.  Throughout the entire month of March, loud outbursts of male voices are commonplace in restaurants, bars, and living rooms across America.  By contrast, college basketball isn’t highly popular with viewing audiences throughout the regular season, but something happens on the first day of March Madness, and it’s about all anyone in America seems to talks about.  Many American corporations capitalize on the country’s obsession with the tournament by running advertisements directed at males, during the games.  It’s a very promising way to for corporations to build awareness for their brands among millions of American men.  Many of their commercials directly incorporate March Madness into the scripts.

 Just like before the Academy Awards, when movie fans fill out ballots predicting who they think is going to win in each category, the same is done for March Madness.  People fill in bracket sheets with which teams they think will win each game, beginning with 64 teams, and ending with one winner.  There is usually a financial reward for the person with the “best bracket.”  Before, during and after the games, people will reference their bracket sheet to see how their predictions match up with the final results.  In order to fill in their brackets, some people take hours analyzing the season records of each school, while others attempt to mathematically predict the brackets, however, none have managed to narrow it down to an exact science, “The nature and the largest common denominator of all games, has at the same time the advantage of placing their diversity and relief and enlarging very meaningfully the universe ordinarily explored when games are studied.” (Callois, 9)  A very common method of filling in the brackets is to choose by the team mascots, or even the colors they like better.  But the biggest badge of honor is given to those who successfully predict which “underdogs” will defeat which “power-houses”.  The reason a correct underdog pick is such a celebrated event, is because March Madness is a tournament that any of the 64 teams can win, on any given day.  A team you have never heard of, like Mercer University, can win their first ever NCAA tournament game against a basketball giant like Duke University despite the fact that “on paper” Duke is the better team.  For those who pick the underdogs, and win, there is an amazing sense of pride.  It’s so easy to pick a powerhouse school such as Duke to go all the way, the person who chooses Mercer to win the whole thing, and gets it right, will be the hero in their pool.

Underdogs that win the NCAA tournament are celebrated more than power-house teams upon returning home.  The reason for this may be that power-houses are expected to win and underdogs are not.  This is not unsimilar to how winning Olympians are celebrated in their societies. “In fact, the men who proved their physical strength, their agility, their courage and their endurance through their victories in the great festivals, of which those at Olympia were the most famous, stood a very good chance of gaining a high social and political position in their home society if they did not already hold one.” (Elias and Dunning, 123)  

If 2014 is anything like past years, March Madness will be chock full of upsets, land-slides, and hopefully a few Cinderella stories.  

 

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Baseball Season Opens Up Down Under

As spring begins to come upon us so does the marathon of a season that is Major League Baseball. Many days spent at the ballpark, eating hot dogs, and playing catch before the big game. Baseball truly is the American past time. However, before all of that takes place on American soil the Aussies will get a taste of what baseball season is like right in their own backyard. That’s right, this year the Opening Series of the Major League Baseball season is set to take place in Sydney, Australia between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks. They are scheduled to play a short two game series before heading back to the States to continue the rest of the season just like every other Major League team.

One thing that should be noted is that this is not the first time the opening series has been played in a country other than the United States. In the past teams have played in Japan, but the reason Australia is an interesting location is the lack of baseball support from the fans. See in Japan they already have an established league that is just below the MLB in terms of competition level. In Australia there is no professional league for players, only an Australian national team who competes sporadically throughout the year. This is one of the reasons Major League Baseball has decided to use Australia as a way to spread baseball.

It is interesting how they use this as not only a means of expanding the market, but with that comes a plethora of revenue. All though all of this costs a significant amount there is tons of profit to be made from the ticket sales, merchandise, food, and all of the other expenses that come with a day at the ballpark. One thing people seem to forget about is that Major League Baseball is a business and the more opportunity you have for your customers to purchase things the better success you will have. 

Aside from the money that is involved with the Opening Series there is another interesting aspect that most people probably do not know or are over looked. This series is being played at the historic Sydney Cricket Grounds, but the grounds were transformed to be a regulation size field. As we have read and discussed in class the history of sports and how the sport is taken by the culture says a lot about how it is played. Baseball and cricket are very similar sports. I would consider this to be like how soccer was changed to rugby in certain countries. I feel like this Opening Series is a way of combining two different sports coming together, it adds an extra dimension of excitement to the game.

Now its time to sit back, open up your sunflower seeds, and put another shrimp on the barby because baseball season is about to be in full swing starting Down Under. It truly is the greatest time of the year.

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The March Madness Opportunity

           The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is starting again and it’s a big time for basketball fans, players and schools alike. The name of the event is March Madness because a crazy amount of basketball is played in a short amount of time and it’s exhilarating for everyone involved. But there is a very real method behind the madness.

            When analyzing what separates play and sport, Guttmann discusses how the “more highly structured events” (such as the NCAA tournament) attempt to create an escape or illusion focused on play which is separate from reality. Guttmann proceeds to say that “in his many guises, the ‘spoilsport’ stands ready to dispel the illusion and to allow the rainbow world of play to ‘fade into the light of common day’” (14). I intend to be the aforementioned spoilsport and shed light onto the non-play aspects of March Madness.

Generating publicity is one of the primary goals of every college in order to increase admissions and revenue. The tournament provides one of the only opportunities for some of the smaller schools to receive public notice and as such, is a very serious business venture. If a team makes the tournament and manages to pull off some upset victories, it can generate some otherwise unattainable opportunities for the coaches and players in addition to creating prestige for the college.

Gonzaga is one of the prime examples. Gonzaga is not in one of the larger basketball conferences and has not historically received much notice from the public eye for its basketball. All of that changed when Gonzaga made its “Cinderella run” in the 1999 NCAA tournament. Against everyone’s expectations, Gonzaga made the elite eight and exposure from their success allowed their head coach Dan Monson to take a head coaching position at Minnesota. After their big run, Gonzaga drew many more talented recruits to its basketball program and continued to be successful in the years to come. Now a-days everyone has heard of Gonzaga and the school receives more attention (and money) than ever all because of one deep run their basketball team made in the NCAA tournament.

Guttmann declares that one the distinguishing characteristics of modern sports is equality. He states, “everyone should theoretically have an opportunity to compete” and “the conditions of competition should be the same for all contestants” (26). This is not how NCAA basketball functions however. “In actual practice there are numerous inequalities,” the most obvious being that not every team makes the tournament and therefore does not receive the same possibilities for media attention. Every school does not have the same amount or allocate as much money to their basketball program, nor do they receive the same talent level in recruits. Thus the playing field is not level even before entering the tournament. And if a team with a smaller program does manage to make it, they are probably a low seed and will have to face one of the best teams to continue by how the tournament is structured.

Despite all the inequalities beforehand, once a team is on the court they are playing the same game with the same rules so there is some sense of fairness. If a team manages to make it to that point, they can shape their fate by winning against the odds and changing the future of their school, their coaching staff and their individual players for the better. So the NCAA tournament may be a serious, scary, career-determining event for many, but it remains twistedly beautiful since there’s always the chance that a new underdog will make it this year. 

Used: Guttmann From Ritual to Record chapters 1 and 2.

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Was President Obama correct? Moms, Football, and the Real Danger

Many parents, especially moms (not to play into heteronormativity or gender roles), spend their whole lives protecting and guiding their children from danger. Undoubtedly, there comes a point in every parent’s life when your child participates in something you think is dangerous or harmful for their well-being and future. Often parents try to counteract this danger and rebellion by implementing structure and constructive activities. For many young boys and girls this activity is organized sports.  Sports can be one way to implement that structure, and has long been championed in highly successful adults. Playing sports helps  you stay in shape, teaches you how to organize your time, boosts friendships, and builds relationships with your peers and adults. However, what happens when sports turn out to be the real thing that is putting your child at risk?

By danger I do not mean the random scratch or cut or even broken bone. This is a danger which has much longer lasting effects on the remainder of your child’s future life and happiness. This danger is called CTE. CTE is progressive degenerative disease of the brain that is found in athletes who sustain many hits to the head. CTE has been linked to many boxers in the past, but in recent years there has been a large finding in football players. These findings of CTE in past pro-football players have caused a discussion on the ethics of football as well as the responsibility of the NFL in taking care of their players. Gladwell compares the NFL to dog fighting; arguing that the manipulation of the dogs for power and money is similar to the way the NFL treats and sees their players (Gladwell 2009).  On the days leading up to the 2013 Super Bowl  President Obama said he “”I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.” If one of the most powerful men in the country is questioning the safety of football, it seems logical that many other Americans are contemplating the dilemmas as well.

As responsible adults what are you to do?  Are you to stop your child from engaging in an otherwise positive experience, which will allow them to gain important life skills? At this point, I do not think I or anyone can tell you or your child they cannot play football. I am not arguing that no one should play football or other hard hitting sports; however as a community and a nation we must be aware.

It is essential that at this point we continue educating and creating awareness. This includes continuing the awareness and promoting proper care of concussion symptoms. This proper care of concussions is often muddled by the pressure of preforming and pleasing your coach, team, and support network.

“That’s football. You’re told either that you’re hurt or that you’re injured. There is no middle ground. If you are hurt, you can play. If you are injured, you can’t, and the line is whether you can walk and if you can put on a helmet and pads” (Gladwell 2009)

It is important to keep in mind that playing with concussions is extremely dangerous for the safety of the athlete. “At least 50 high school or younger football players in more than 20 states since 1997 have been killed or have sustained serious head injuries on the field,” according to research by The New York Times. These deaths may have been prevented if there was more education and concern for athletes who may have sustained a concussion.

The education about CTE and concussions must start with Pee-Wee Football coaches talking to parents and expressing the possible concerns. This education should not stop after Pee-Wee; it must be reinforced throughout an athlete’s career, including professional leagues. I cannot emphasize the importance of education and awareness in these families, not to establish fear but more to diminish ignorance. Once again I understand and support the idea that the sports a kid plays is a personal decision, but awareness about the real danger of football and all hard hitting head sports must be widespread and present.

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Marxist Masters

Every April golf fans everywhere start to get giddy and excited for the Master’s tournament. Chills run down your back when you see those first few commercials on ESPN with the azaleas and dogwood trees in bloom and the tall Georgia pines towering over Amen Corner.  It is the first major of the PGA’s season; it marks the beginning of spring and reminds the rest of us amateur golfers that it is time to brush the dust off the clubs in the garage. For the participants of the tournament it gives them a chance to start their year off on a great foot, it gives the armatures in the field a chance to prove that they have to game to hang with the big guns on tour. Everyone in that field is playing for a chance to slip into a customized green jacket on Sunday night and become a member of the most exclusive clubs in the world. Some might say that it is too exclusive.

Augusta National has always been scrutinized for being behind the times when it comes to gender and racial equality along with many other things. Augusta invited Ron Townsend to become its first Black member in 1990 and the first two female members of the club are Condoleezza Rice and business executive Darla Moore. They weren’t invited until 2012. Still today the rules on the grounds of Augusta are very strict during the Masters Tournament. For example there is a strict no running policy and a no electronics policy that spectators and media members alike must abide by. You also need to watch your mouth around this tight upper lip traditionalist change resistant micro society within the club and Gary McCord, a very colorful commentator for CBS, learned this the hard way after he was politely asked to not return to Augusta after saying that the greens look like they have been “bikini waxed” and the mounds around the course look like “body bags”.

In today’s need to know everything society dominated by social media Augusta is somewhat of a hidden gem, literally. The club remains extremely private not much is known about the inner workings of it but they do understand how to use the Master’s Tournament as a great business adventure. In the latest issue of Golf Digest they estimated that the club makes hundreds millions of dollars off of ticket sales, television and licensed goods. That type of revenue along with membership dues which cost between 10 and 30,000 dollars annually makes Augusta one of the richest clubs in the world. The club has also slowly been buying up property immediately surrounding the area of the golf course. There has been no official word on what they plan to do with it but many speculate that they intend to use it simply as a buffer zone to keep the rest of the world out of Augusta.

Augusta is obviously one of the most upper class conservative clubs you’ll find anywhere and my golf coach the other day brought up a very interesting question to us, a group of middle to upper middle class liberal arts college student, “why do you guys like the Master’s?”  The answer I thought was simple, because it’s the best golf tournament held for the best golfers at one of the best courses and was created by arguably the best golfer of all time.

But the answer I realized is not so simple. Why do we like the Master’s why do we support a club that didn’t let women in until less than two years ago? Why do we support a club that only let a black man in 20 years ago? Why do we support a club that kicks a TV commentator out for exercising his right to free speech? If you take a Marxist approach by, using Guilianotti’s Sport a Critical Sociology article, to the Master’s Augusta is the bourgeois has all the power, they have the product and only use the Master’s tournament to make money.

So why have we, the proletariat, not started to protest Augusta yet? Will we ever? I don’t know if we will and that question might not ever get answered but is interesting to see how traditions of sport can still stand in today’s society as is the case with Augusta. It will be interesting to see how Augusta National Golf Club and The Master’s tournament will be viewed in the years to come and weather it will be still so heavily supported of will people open their eyes and see that Augusta needs to catch up with the times.

 

 

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Could soccer be taking over as “America’s favorite past time”?

According to ESPNfc.com this could become our new reality. In a recent online article by Roger Bennett, Major League Soccer (MLS) is currently tied with Major League Baseball (MLB) at 18% popularity for children 12- to 17- year-olds. This may seem shocking, but this isn’t a new trend. ESPN and other sports analysts (SGMA) have been tracking soccer’s popularity in the United States for a while now, and have shown that there has been a steady increase in interest since the creation of MLS in 1996.

Although analysts have been following this trend, the cause of this increase in popularity is still murky. Luker on Trends who manages the poll by tracking 1,500 American’s per month and their interests in 31 different sports gave several suggestions for why the MLS is steadily increasing in popularity. To begin, Luker on Trends proposes that this increase is occurring because of the number of major celebrity pro-soccer players, like David Beckham, playing in the MLS, as well as the popularity of EA Sports’ FIFA (franchise). In addition, more soccer (e.g. MLS, English Premier League, NCAA) is being broadcasted on more widely available television stations. This coverage, helps increase viewership not only in the United States but also worldwide. As people see more of the MLS around the world, they can recognize the talent, and adopt teams into their own fandom.

However, Luker on Trends failed to address the effects of the expansion of youth soccer in the United States on MLS popularity. In a 2011, a survey by SGMA found there are 14,075,000 people playing soccer in the United States, of those 71% are under the age of 25. This is a huge percent of the population that is moving into the prime age for sport media consumption.

This trigger is possibly due to the increase in youth playing soccer specifically from suburban towns across the United States. In the 2011 study by SGMA of the soccer participants, more than half had an average annual income of $25,000 -$99,999.  Making a majority of the players from a middle class socio-economic background.

What is particularly interesting about the suburban population attracted to playing soccer has adapted the sport from a simple game that includes a net and ball, to being a sport of status with in Suburban America. This rise began in the late 20th century, making youth soccer an entire a life style that incorporates the whole family, and produces its own sub-culture following. The sport of soccer for Suburban America has expanded not only industries specific to the game which includes equipment, but as also included athletic fashion, helps instills middle class values, morals, and expectations of excellence.

According to David L. Andrews, “Over the past two decades youth soccer has become embroiled in the suburban context to the extent that it contributes to the very constitution of this competitive ‘universe of practices and consumptions.’ Soccer’s socio-spatial distribution is at least partly attributable to its position as ‘an elective luxury’, only afforded by the not inconsiderable wealth of parents.”

The middle class parents’ ability to provide for their children in sports shows how invested and involved these parents are in their children’s lives. Many mothers specially are referred to as “soccer moms,” and dads are identified as the child’s individual or team coach. Therefore, it is not a surprising comparison to see, that with increased participation in youth soccer in the last couple of decades there is also an increase in fans, as parents come and watch their children play. For this reason, it shouldn’t be a coincidence that since the MLS was created in the late 1990’s, popularity has grown parallel to Suburban American soccer participation.

Finally, coming back to look at why MLS popularity is growing steadily in the adolescent population. The cause is not only just the increase in media exposure, but also one that includes the participants as well. These children that have grown up playing soccer and are fans because of their participation in a sport they enjoy and understand. In addition, they have inspired their parents generation to join in. This is probably why we are seeing this steady increase in interest of viewing professional soccer within the United State. Who knows, with the suburban population still steadily growing, it is possible that in are near future we will see the MLS become the number one American sport of summer.

 

Sources:

http://espnfc.com/news/story/_/id/1740529/mls-catches-mlb-popularity-kids-says-espn-poll?cc=5901

David L. Andrews (1999): Contextualizing suburban soccer: Consumer culture, lifestyle differentiation and suburban America, Culture, Sport, Society, 2:3, 31-53

SGMA Research / Sports Marketing Surveys: Single Sport Report – 2011 on Soccer (Outdoor)

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