Before March Madness

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“March Madness,”
the advertising slogan that CBS gives to its broadcasts of the
NCAA basketball playoffs, is over for another year. This is big
business for CBS. In 2003, the network signed a contract with
the NCAA for $6 billion for an 11-year contract.

which has televised the NCAA men’s basketball championship since
1982, acquired all television and radio rights to the tournament,
including over-the-air broadcasting, cable television, satellite,
digital and home video.

getting the cable rights, CBS said it has no plans to move the
men’s tournament games off of network television.

“We didn’t
pay this kind of money to farm it out,” said Leslie Moonves,
president and chief executive officer of CBS Television. “For
us, the Final Four may be the greatest sporting event of the

For those of
us who have been college basketball fans since the era before UCLA,
this is an amazing phenomenon. It represents a transformation of
American culture that was inconceivable four decades ago. There
was a time when only football was a serious contender for college
sports fame. There was also a time when college sports did not offer
such financial potential to colleges that they would systematically
debase academic requirements in order to recruit athletes who were
not capable of graduating.

Three decades
ago, free market economist Ben Rogge [ROWEguee] accurately identified
the economics of the NCAA: a legalized cartel that wants to keep
down the price of its primary commodity, namely, athletic talent.
The NCAA’s rules are designed to limit what is paid to athletes
to come and play for universities that hope to generate lots of
money. Universities make their money on sports by means of the
spread between the price paid to athletes and the revenue generated
by them. This revenue used to be based primarily on old grads’
donations. It still is for minor league academic teams: those
not in NCAA Division-1. But for the NCAA Division-1 universities
today, a lot of their revenue comes from the network revenues
generated from commercial advertising.

cartel justifies its unique legal status based on academia’s non-profit
legal status. Officially, higher education is designed to make
the world a better place through formal education. Legislatures
are filled with representatives who want to hold down education
costs. They also want bragging rights when their alma maters win
an NCAA championship. So, they join with the university administrations
to exempt higher education from anti-trust action. The fig leaf
for this exemption is the myth of student athletes as unpaid amateurs.
If you want to see a movie on this myth, rent Blue
. (Note: for basketball buffs, this movie includes
an exchange between Nick Nolte and Bob Cousy, where Cousy, now
an old man — sad to say — gives a demonstration of free
throwing skills that leads Nolte the actor to exclaim, obviously
unscripted, “Don’t you ever miss?”)


There was
a time when NCAA basketball was not televised. This may be difficult
to believe for younger readers

In 1961,
I very much wanted to see the NCAA finals. This was the Ohio showdown
between Ohio State and Cincinnati. In the late 1950’s and in 1960,
Cincinnati had come close to winning the NCAA when it had the
great forward, Oscar Robertson, but had not quite made the grade.
Now it had a no-name team that had made it to the finals. Facing
them was an undefeated Ohio State team, the reigning NCAA champion,
which starred Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek. The year before,
Ohio State had blown off the court the reigning NCAA champion,

I had seen
the Cal-Ohio State game in 1960 because Cal was a California team.
The game had been broadcast in Los Angeles. Cal in 1959 had defeated
West Virginia, which had the great Jerry West as its forward,
by one point. (West is the model for the NBA’s logo.) The night
before, Cal had defeated Cincinnati and Robertson. Cal was the
last team to win an NCAA championship that relied exclusively
on defense, although Cincinnati in 1961 and 1962 was defense-oriented.
Cal was a supremely boring team to watch, but it won games. I
am not 100% sure about this, but as I recall, the 1959 final game
was played by two teams with all-white starting line-ups. In those
days, basketball was a mostly a white man’s game.

In 1961,
no local TV station broadcast the final game. This was the Los
Angeles market, which was huge. NBC instead broadcast “Timex Circus”
with Joe E. Brown, a minor Hollywood comic of the 1930’s. This
has stuck in my memory for over four decades. I still find it
difficult to believe. Cincinnati won in overtime. In 1962, the
same two teams ended in the finals. Cincinnati won again.

I saw that
game. In 1962, John Wooden’s UCLA team made it to the final four
for the first time. The team lost in the semi-final game to Cincinnati
in the final seconds because of a disputed charging violation
on sophomore guard Walt Hazard. The game was broadcast by a local
independent TV station. No local network station wanted to broadcast
the UCLA game because the NCAA had imposed a restriction: the
local station would have to broadcast the final game, even if
UCLA lost in the semi-finals, which it did. That restriction was
considered onerous. “What? We have to broadcast the NCAA final
game even if the local team loses? Are you people crazy?”

In 1963,
a local station did broadcast the final game in Los Angeles. I
don’t recall if it was a network station. Cincinnati was in the
final game for the third time. It had a chance to become the first
team in NCAA basketball history to win a third consecutive title.
It lost in overtime to Loyola of Chicago.

The next
year UCLA won the championship for the first time: undefeated.
That game was broadcast nationally. UCLA, with no player over
6’5″, defeated a very tall Duke team. It won again in 1965, establishing
the all-time scoring record for the final four games: 100 points/game.
That was the tentative beginning of March madness for NCAA basketball.
In 1966, Texas Western (now the University of Texas, El Paso)
won, the first all-black team to do so. They defeated Kentucky,
which was all white. The next year, Lew Alcindor arrived on the
varsity at UCLA. By the time UCLA’s reign of terror ended in 1975,
March Madness was a TV ratings factor.


Hardly anyone
watched pro football until the 1958 game between the New York
Giants (Charlie Connerly) and the Baltimore Colts (Johnny Unitas).
Pro basketball was still being played in gymnasiums as late as
1962, when Wilt Chamberlain had been in the league for two years.
There was not even a sports photographer at the 1962 game where
he scored 100 points, the all-time record in the NBA. After the
game, a photographer handed him a piece of paper with 100 written
on it. He held up the paper. That photo is the only visual record
of the game. The game was played in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in
front of a crowd of 4,124 people — half the arena’s capacity.

Today, sports
are big business. Sociologists offer lots of explanations, but the
obvious one is probably the central factor: people want to belong
to something that is larger than their own circle of friends. They
want to be able to identify themselves emotionally as members of
a significant group. Church used to provide this sense of meaning
for most Americans. There was also competition from politics. Robert
Nisbet half a century ago wrote a book on the phenomenon of messianic
politics as redemptive: The
Quest for Community

If we date
the pinnacle of the Protestant Establishment with the death of
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in 1960, the rise of sports as a replacement
makes sense. Vatican II (1963—65) and its aftermath undermined
the older Catholicism in the second half of the 1960’s. Politics
turned sour for Democrats with Lyndon Johnson, and for Republicans
with Richard Nixon. Reagan could not restore faith in politics
as a form of participatory redemption for Republicans. Clinton
surely did not restore it for Democrats.

People want
to be represented by someone. Sports teams have replaced churches
and political parties as the central institutions providing a
sense of community through representation. Professional football
has competed with church on Sunday. In off seasons, NASCAR racing
fills this role, but without team membership. Fans are committed
to individual drivers. The same is true of golf, another Sunday

The Olympics
are for national participation what teams are for cities. The
national flags and anthems create the required sense of participation.
The Classical Olympics fulfilled the same function for Greek city-states.
Exceptionally great athletes in some cases were assumed to be
godlike, with death making them gods. This was the meaning of
“hero.” The rise of popularity of the Olympics, as measured by
Nielsen ratings, began in 1960.

has been a major factor, bringing sports into homes. But television
had been bringing other forms of entertainment into millions of
homes from the mid-1950’s. Sports were not prime-time attractions
in that era.

If I were
to date the change, I would select November 22—25, 1963,
as the turning point. The death of Kennedy, and the sharing of
grief through television, for the first time brought the nation
together through television. The Beatles arrived six weeks later.
The television coverage for them was immense. From that point
on, the television became more than a medium for entertainment.
It became a means of creating a sense of community — virtual
community, in other words. The radio did this in the 1930’s, with
Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats as the supreme examples. But radio
lacked the visual element. Television supplied this. Television
grabs the emotions more forcefully than radio does.

Color television
enhanced this sense of participation. This became universal after
1965, which is why there are almost no black and white movies
made after 1965, except for deliberate artistry, such as The
Last Picture Show
. The studios knew they had to get their
films on TV, and TV meant color.

Color made
an emotional difference. When viewers could see team colors clearly,
their level of commitment rose. The arrival of this technology
parallelled the decline of commitment to other representative
institutions. Sports became the huge winners.

The last
major breakthrough came with the acceptance of all-black teams
in the NBA. There was a brief period in the early 1980’s when
the transition was close to complete racially. The NBA did not
enjoy the level of commitment from viewers that it possesses today.
The networks did not battle with the same ferocity to get the
NBA games. But by the end of the decade, the commitment of fans
to team colors was complete. What John Wooden’s UCLA teams and
the Lakers had done for Los Angeles basketball fans in the second
half of the 1960’s, the NBA did for whole cities by 1990: persuaded
them that victories based on talent were more important than the
racial make-up of the teams.


The pay
scales enjoyed by NFL and NBA players, let alone the stars, indicate
that there is enormous commitment of fans to representation by
athletes. Companies know this, which is why they pay for the advertising.
If we follow the money, we can judge the level of commitment by
fans. The failure of women’s sports to generate anything like
the revenues that male sports generate remains the most measurable
testimony to the complete failure of the women’s liberation movement
and the U.S. government to make unequal things equal by law.

remains one of the most successful large-scale cartels in the
United States. The NCAA has successfully kept down the monetary
price of talent, though not of coaches. It has had to surrender
ground on the academic price of talent, such as players who can
read at a ninth-grade level — or even lower. But hardly anyone
cares about this: old grads, fans, coaches, and state legislatures.
Faculty members grouse about this, but their clout is so minimal
as to be ignored with minimal cost. Faculty members, unlike star
athletes and winning coaches, are easily replaced.

6, 2004

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
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