The joy of ‘March Madness’, America’s weirdest sports ritual

It’s the second weekend of the annual US college basketball tournament known as March Madness, and the students and alumni of Saint Peter’s University, a tiny commuter school in New Jersey, have their sights set on another momentous night. In blue feathered crowns and boas, wearing T-shirts with phrases such as “Sweet History”, they flood in their dozens past the security gates of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

Among those holding aloft large cardboard cut-out peacocks, a nod to the team’s name, belief is sky high. Ranked as a 15th seed (out of a possible 16) before the tournament, Saint Peter’s pulled off a huge shock in their overtime defeat of the University of Kentucky, the most successful programme in men’s college basketball. They followed that with another upset, beating Murray State, also of Kentucky. Now they were just one win away from becoming the first 15-seed ever to reach the final, so-called “Elite Eight” teams of March Madness.

Asya Robinson, a 24-year-old alumna of Saint Peter’s, who’s driven an hour or so from the Jersey shore to be here, marvels at the dramatic ride her team has been on. “It still doesn’t feel real,” she tells me, looking around the stadium that’s usually home to Philadelphia’s NBA team, the Sixers, and the Flyers, its pro ice hockey team. “I remember watching these guys in our home gym in Jersey City, with rain dripping down from the leaky roof, the lack of resources we had…’’

The Peacocks’ reward for their heroics is a hugely tough match-up with Indiana’s Purdue Boilermakers, from the powerhouse Big Ten conference, so maybe it’s a good omen that it’s been scheduled to take place in Philadelphia, birthplace of the American Revolution, home of Rocky Balboa and a city synonymous with the underdog. The Philly locals had clearly caught Saint Peter’s fever. With a few hours still to go until tip-off, a stadium employee approaches us, and points excitedly at Robinson’s white Peacocks T-shirt. “Saint Peter’s! Jesuits, baby! Let’s go!” he yells. Robinson’s boyfriend Jayson Singletary puts the heightened air of camaraderie down to the magic of March Madness during which, he says, “On any given night, a school no one has heard of can beat the best team in the country”.

As that evening’s game gets under way, the crowd of 20,136 is unified in its allegiance to the Peacocks. Any time the Jumbotron showcases fans wearing Purdue gear, the rest of the stadium jeers so loudly that the camera crew eventually stops cutting to them. A mid-game dance-off between the schools’ mascots — both, coincidentally, named Pete — ends when the felt-costumed, teal-coloured peacock pulls a hip-hop dance move, the Whip/Nae Nae, eliciting shrieks from all corners. Madness is a pretty good description for it all.

When the final buzzer sounds, after Saint Peter’s junior Doug Edert sinks two free throws to seal his team’s 67-64 victory, the stadium erupts in a frenzy of noise. The Peacocks have just advanced to the quarter finals.

Edert box-jumps on to a sideline table as men and women around the stands leap up and down, whooping and raising their hands above their heads in disbelief. A boy no older than 10 stands alone, weeping uncontrollably into the sleeve of his Saint Peter’s jumper. Spilling out into the concourse, a middle-aged man bellows, “We’re the centre of the universe!”

The Super Bowl often gets top billing as America’s marquee sporting event, but there’s an argument to be made that March Madness offers a more profound reflection of the country.

With 68 universities from 34 states participating in the 2022 event, no other athletic competition comes close in terms of geographic scale, unpredictability of results and economic power. (There’s no easy comparison but imagine a Euros football championship with double the number of teams and during which someone gets knocked out in every match.) Broadcast rights for the 2021 championship generated $850mn for its organising body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association — 74 per cent of its annual revenue — meaning that men’s basketball bankrolls virtually all university sport programmes here, from athletics to swimming to sailing.

And, unlike professional sports where a few dozen wealthy clubs take it in turns to be champions, March Madness can transform the fortunes of a school or even a single player, literally overnight. “It’s just a straight up rollercoaster,” says Jon Rothstein, a college basketball analyst for CBS, when I ask him what separates March Madness from other events in the US. With the exception of the Super Bowl, professional sports championships in men’s basketball, baseball and hockey are each decided over the course of a best-of-seven series. In stark contrast, March Madness “is a one-and-done type situation. If you don’t have your best basketball game in 40 minutes, your season is going to be over”.

North Carolina Tar Heels guard Caleb Love shoots as Saint Peters Peacocks’ forward Fousseyni Drame defends at Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, on March 27 © Mitchell Leff/USA Today Sports/Reuters

It is this sense of chaos, combined with the deeply ingrained American obsession with self-determined success (Saint Peter’s streak is uniformly described by commentators as a “Cinderella” story), that makes March Madness the most unique sporting event I’ve covered in more than a decade of reporting around the world.

There is perhaps no better place to experience it than in Philadelphia, the craziest sports town in the country. “Philadelphia is the best big-city feel for college basketball in America,” Rothstein tells me, pointing to the rich tradition of what Philly natives call “the Big Five” local universities with competitive hoops teams: Penn, La Salle, Saint Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova. It was also here, 30 years ago this week, that Duke University’s Christian Laettner sank the most famous buzzer-beater in college basketball history, a play so iconic it is known simply as The Shot.

“Basketball is really the ultimate urban sport”, says Bill Conallen, a north-east Philly native I find perched at the bar at Locust Rendezvous, a discreet dive in Center City with wood-panelled walls and Christmas garland still strung from the ceiling. We’re watching Villanova take on the University of Houston in their own March Madness game televised from San Antonio. A group of patrons behind us are decked out in Villanova kits, while the table next to them is loudly singing along to Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time”. I realise I need to up my game when, at 6pm, a woman to my left orders two jello shots for herself.

Conallen, who is dressed in a black blazer over a Sixers T-shirt, sips a Blue Moon as he tries to explain what makes Philadelphia a unique sports town. The answer, he says, has a lot to do with how the city distinguishes itself from its east coast neighbours. “The image of New York is pretty white collar. It’s entertainment. It’s Wall Street. It’s glitz and glamour,” he says, drawing out his o’s as if each of them is underlined and capitalised. “But Philly is a blue-collar place; it’s a union town. Comcast is the only big company we have here. We’re not pulling people in like New York or DC. Sports are what we have to represent us to the rest of the world.’’

I begin to make the point that Philly sports fans, known for being as harsh as they are passionate, don’t necessarily have the best reputation. More than half a century after fans of the local Eagles NFL team pelted a Father Christmas volunteer with snowballs, dressing as Saint Nick at Eagles games is generally regarded as a do-so-at-your-own-risk endeavour. But Conallen cuts me off: “He was not a good Santa,” he says, only slightly in jest.

While we’re debating, Villanova goes up by 11 points in the first half, and the rest of the patrons look to relax. Conallen, meanwhile, says it’s important to distinguish that Villanova, based “on the Main Line” outside of Philadelphia, is the only Big Five school located beyond city limits. “You can debate if Villanova really is Big Five”, he says. Doesn’t Philadelphia still claim them when they win? “Oh sure,” he says. “But the important thing is, we love an underdog”.

That spirit is seen in abundance around the city all weekend. As I traipse around Center City and South Philly trying to measure just how pervasive March Madness mania is, I find that even more than backing Villanova, Philly has become a Saint Peter’s town. At McGillin’s Olde Ale House, which self-advertises as the oldest continually operating pub in town, dating to 1860, ceilings within the two-storey colonial are draped with flags for Saint Peter’s and Ukraine.

Until this school year, athletes have been forbidden from earning a dime from their participation in college sports. But a swift and sudden policy change has upended the entire NCAA business model. The name, image and likeness, or NIL benefit, makes Saint Peter’s and their star Edert the first Cinderella team to translate that success into cold, hard cash; by the time the Peacocks clinch their berth in the Elite Eight, Edert has already signed his first endorsement, with the national take-out chain Buffalo Wild Wings.

Perhaps the real surprise is that it hasn’t happened before. Since the turn of the century, US college sports have ballooned into a $14bn industry, taking into account not only the scale of March Madness but the outfitting, corporate partners, fundraising and event ticket sales across thousands of universities. Institutions from the NCAA to individual colleges and even coaches have reaped billions and millions, respectively, from the ecosystem.

Its manifestation as a full commercial enterprise is evident from the fact that March Madness is not held at the Palestra, an actual university gym, which Philadelphia’s official tourism guide describes as feeling like a visit “to an era before luxury boxes, $1,000 floor seats, and giant plasma scoreboards. To a time when the game was a little simpler.”

Instead, I take the Septa underground to what may be the platonic ideal of American professional sports development: a trio of ultra-large stadiums, each named for a different financial services company, conjoined by a multipurpose bar-nightclub/sports-wagering ultra lounge, and surrounded by a moat of intersecting car parks. The South Philadelphia Sports Complex can seat a combined 133,000 people and houses four professional sports franchises worth a combined $9.8bn, according to estimates by Forbes.

Overhead a prop plane circles, trailing a large banner with the Saint Peter’s hashtag: “#StrutUp Peacocks”. A logo beneath the text bears the name of Peacock, the name of Philly-based Comcast’s subsidiary national streaming service. Everywhere I look, fans are holding cardboard cut-outs supplied by Peacock, the media brand, in support of Peacocks, the New Jersey-based college sports team. Comcast doesn’t even have the broadcast rights to March Madness.

Inside the stadium, a mix of Saint Peter’s alumni and Philly locals snack on tacos. Janice Luck, an athletic director at third-division Albright College, is a Villanova fan but has come out with friends to watch the next chapter in the Peacock’s Cinderella story.

In March Madness, says Luck, “the whole concept of a Cinderella is, they are probably a school that is very unknown… So everyone starts to pile on and then all of a sudden people start researching that school. Next thing you know, a couple years from now, they’re gonna get a lot of endorsements, investments, and then that school starts to become the sought-after school that basketball kids want to go to.” Michael Steinetz, who’s wearing a Nova cap, chimes in, “This whole thing becomes a commercial for the next couple years”.

At this point, Saint Peter’s had won a mere two games, but some of the alumni I meet say they’re already seeing returns. Cory Spearman, a two-time Saint Peter’s graduate, with master’s degrees in business and risk management, is among them. “One hundred per cent, the value of my degrees have gone up”, he tells me. “They’re putting us on the map”.

Before the NCAA buckled to pressure and suspended its NIL policy, the top brass argued in front of the Supreme Court that maintaining amateur status of university athletes was the definitive distinction between college and professional sports. Allow players to receive anything more than scholarships, they posited, and the public appeal of college sports would diminish.

As we chat within the $210mn arena where tickets are virtually sold out, no one seems fazed by the idea that athletes such as Edert could now hawk chicken wings from their Instagram. “I think that they deserve it,” says Luck. “This is the exact way to do it: let the outside companies pay them now, as opposed to the colleges paying them directly.” Another local puts it this way: “These kids play their hearts out for four years, and not all of them are going to the NBA,” she says. “Like Saint Peter’s”.

On Sunday, the Peacocks returned to the Wells Fargo Center for their quarter-final game against University of North Carolina, a powerhouse programme with seven national titles and also the alma mater of Michael Jordan. Unlike the Peacocks’ first three games, almost from the start there was a clear winner, and it wasn’t Saint Peter’s

The capacity crowd, which began with ferocious support for the beloved New Jersey underdogs, eventually settles into a whimper. With more than four minutes on the clock to go, and UNC up by more than 20 points, they start to dissipate. Cinderella still has a curfew.

The wrenching twist of March Madness is that for every delirious victory there is an anguishing loss. As historic as Saint Peter’s run may have been, the players hung their heads as they left the court, some perhaps for the final time in their careers, as confetti rained upon the victors.

Peacocks’ coach Shaheen Holloway has become a household name over the past two weeks, appearing on morning shows and evening sports-talk programmes, his advice on how to lead sought from every corner of the country. Rival coaches have tipped their hats to him. When it was all over, reporters wanted to know what was the lesson, what was the legacy, what was the impact of this Saint Peter’s programme. In response he folds his arms, the disappointment of the loss draining the look on his face, and says he wishes he could play the night’s game over.

But, before he leaves, his parting words underline for me that the defining impact of March Madness isn’t really about money, or even winning — it’s about progress. “Saint Peter’s made it to the Elite Eight,” says Holloway, his gravelly voice hovering over each syllable. “That’s a great story.”

Sara Germano is the FT’s US sports business correspondent

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