Basketball Fans Consumed by March Madness

The NCAA men's basketball tournament begins this week. And what is often called March Madness will go on until April 3, when the last two teams meet in Indianapolis for the championship. Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis talks with Robert Siegel.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Tomorrow, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament begins with 65 teams taking part. And what is often called March Madness will go on until April 3rd, when the last two teams meet in Indianapolis for the championship. Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal usually talks with us about sports and the business of sports on Fridays, but Stefan, this is so urgent, we've invited you here on a Monday, actually.

STEFAN FATSIS reporting:

It's a pleasure to come, Robert.

SIEGEL: You write today in the paper about George Washington University's basketball team that you've been covering all season, and it's a remarkable story of a school that is not in a big, powerful conference, not a traditional basketball power, that decided, we're going to be a big basketball power.

FATSIS: Now, they've always had a pretty good team, and they're in a conference with schools like St. Joseph's and Xavier and Temple. These are good basketball schools. But they've had a renewed emphasis over the last few years, with a new, hungry, ambitious coach that wants to get better because he would like to move up to the big time as well, and that means, to try and get a better team on the court, and that's what this guy has done.

SIEGEL: Is it all recruiting? It must be largely recruiting, finding better players.

FATSIS: It is. And it's a challenge at a smaller school. GW plays in an arena that has 5,000 seats. It looks like a high school gym really. The locker-room has showers that the players won't even use. They go back to their dorms usually to shower. Their budget is about one-fourth the size of that of bigger programs. They don't charter planes. They're not on TV very often. It's a challenge to get kids to want to come. And then the question for a school like GW is, how do you get them to come, and who do you allow in?

SIEGEL: And do you make exceptions and decide to allow in kids who really might not be good enough students to get into GW?

FATSIS: Every Division I basketball program does that. It's the nature of the sport. The question is how far do you go.

SIEGEL: People have said that GW made a couple of exceptions here that might have been over the line.

FATSIS: Yes. They recruited some kids, like other programs have done, from academically suspect prep schools, places where kids that either don't finish high school and need a place to go get qualified, as the word is in NCAA parlance, qualified to play in Division I tend to go. These schools may not be the most rigorous academically. Some of them don't even offer diplomas. And kids get funneled in there, they get qualified one way or another, and schools end up recruiting them. And that's happened to GW.

SIEGEL: One thing that you explain in your article today is the economics of a college basketball program booking home games against visiting teams they think they can beat and playing road games against schools that are more likely to beat them.

FATSIS: And this is all about getting into the NCAA Tournament. Your conference schedule is fixed. You can't change that. So you have some flexibility with eight to 10 out of conference games every year, and those are usually at the beginning of the season. So who do you play? Do you travel to bigger schools to get some exposure, maybe upset a better team, and get a lot of money from them? The bigger schools will pay you sixty to seventy thousand dollars to hit the road and go visit them.

If you play at home, you're not going to be able to pay as much. So GW spent about $125,000 in aggregate to bring in about eight smaller schools this year to play them at home, six to eight smaller schools, passing up about three hundred or four hundred thousand dollars in revenue that they could have gotten by going on the road. The strategy, though, was want to win a lot of games and impress the NCAA folks come tournament time.

SIEGEL: But they did have a terrific record.

FATSIS: And they did, but it didn't overshadow the fact that they played really a weak schedule, because the NCAA committee that seeds and selects this tournament looks at a bunch of statistical calculations of how strong your schedule was out of conference, how well you did against these schools, who you've played.

SIEGEL: Another quick couple of items about the tournament. In the west, the UCLA Bruins will play the Bruins of --

FATSIS: Belmont University.

SIEGEL: Belmont University of Nashville, Tennessee.

FATSIS: I've never heard of them either. The first time in the NCAA tournament. They've only been in the NCAA's Division I for a few years. They were in the NAIA smaller grouping before that. This was mostly a music school, as I've come to learn, about 4,300 students, people like LeAnn Rimes and Brad Paisley went there.

SIEGEL: And your beloved Quakers from your alma mater Penn.

FATSIS: Fifteenth seed in the same group as GW. They will be playing Texas in the first round. This is only the second time since 1989 that the Ivy League has been treated so shabbily to be given a fifteenth seed.

SIEGEL: Thank you very much for talking with us. Again, Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal. He talks with us usually on Fridays but today on a Monday about sports and the business of sports.

NORRIS: And you can get geared up for March Madness with an A-to-Z guide to the tournament. You'll find that at our website, NPR.org.

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