The Fairy Tale of March

March Madness

Because regular season NCAA Basketball games account for such a small percentage of the overall sports market, it’s at least curious that the NCAA Basketball Tournament is widely regarded as the most popular sporting event of the year.

As a sports marketing event, the NCAA Division 1 Men’s basketball tournament is in the Major Leagues, alongside the Super Bowl, the World Cup and the Olympics. When the 68 team fields for the NCAA Basketball Championship were announced on March 12th this year, it marked the commencement of two-week long event known as March Madness.

Part of the success of the tournament, which began getting widespread television coverage in 1982, resulted from the unexpected national championship runs of teams like North Carolina State. In 1983, NC State won the National Championship against extraordinary odds. It was around that time that NC State, and teams like them, began to be widely referred to as “Cinderella” teams.

The Appropriation of a Fairy Tale

Why Cinderella? Why have sports commentators insisted for more than thirty years on describing and hyping the NCAA Basketball tournament by appropriating a princess fairy tale?

For starters, both are “rags-to-riches” stories. For many basketball players, the Big Dance is the best – and sometimes last – opportunity to “debut” their skills to the scouts in the stands. There is a similar desperation in the tale of Cinderella, who has one chance to shine and claim her dream. Unlikely as it seems, she does it. She gets a new job and a really big house. Likewise, if they’re skilled and fortunate enough, so do the ballers.

It’s also true both are stories of great passion. If you haven’t watched the NCAA Tourney, you haven’t felt the NCAA Tourney. With the possible exception of the World Cup, there is no sporting event that produces more passion from both its participants and its audience. There’s certainly no event that brings human beings to tears of joy and heartache as frequently and insistently as the Big Dance does.

Basketballs and Dancing Balls

If you aren’t familiar with some of the Cinderella-myth language commonly used around the tournament, here is a rough idea. If yours is one of the fortunate teams to make the tournament, you have been granted an “invitation” to “The Big Dance.”

“March Madness” designates the temporal enthusiasm that weds the tournament to Spring and is mostly a marketing pitch for the sales of beer and food, but the tournament itself is called “The Big Dance” about as frequently as it is called the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

“The Big Dance” is a kind of nickname for the “Royal Ball” that Cinderella teams are invited to each Spring. And because Cinderella is a “debutant” myth, a word frequently used to describe teams as well as individual players, if you do well enough at “The Big Dance” to make it to the quarterfinals, you reach the “Sweet Sixteen.”

The “Sweet Sixteen” party, like the debutant party of social circles that introduces a young woman into datable society, springs from the “coming of age” or “coming out” tales like Cinderella. Maybe it’s because the “Sweet Sixteen” round is the halfway mark of the tournament that it gets so much attention, but this round is referenced more than any other point in the two-week long affair. Such is the power of language and myth. Teams are very often satisfied to have reached the “Sweet Sixteen.”

There are countless other phrases turned in honor of this most famous of fairy tales. Over the years, I have heard “stroke of midnight,” “teams on their dance card, “dropped the slipper,” “fairy godmother” and “fairy godfather,” and “turned into a pumpkin” to describe what’s happening on a basketball court.

More Grace Than Madness

The graceful, synchronized movement of a basketball team in a room with a ball suspended in the air is the stuff of fairy tales. It’s also the stuff of Junior Proms. It’s a story that’s familiar to us, and it’s one we retell because we need it. It takes us back, girls and boys, women and men, to that brief flare of our own lives during which we transcended the world’s expectations of us.

So, when a Cinderella team from the east goes from anonymity to office pool fame in one night, just before midnight, we get it. We get the move from sports to romance, from basketball to myth. It is a leap, to be sure, but a slam dunk of an experience for all of us who invest in it each year, to all of us who fill out our brackets and wait to see if our hearts break or soar.


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