Why Do We Love March Madness So Much?

by Kevin Burton

  In the bad old days, being without a girlfriend, or a date, or even a prayer, on Valentine’s Day was a sharp searing pain to the psyche.

   Now by comparison, being without a basketball team for the big dance, or even the little dance, is a dull ache. March Madness is all around me, like the inescapable redness and pinkness of pre-Valentine’s, but I just can’t get my heartbeat to move off neutral.

   You see, I’m a Wichita State fan. If you want to know how that is going, we just fired our coach and were reportedly turned down by our first choice to replace him.

   It was a blah year, no dancing, not even a nervous Sunday by the television. That tournament-invite phone was never going to ring this year, any more than mine did in the bad old days.

   In this case of Wichita State this can be considered love lost, because in recent memory the Shockers were everybody’s favorite bracket-busting mid-major this time of year.

   As for the NIT, the Little Dance, my other favorite underdog team, Dayton, shut down that speculation by declining any offers that might come their way. They did so not due to arrogance as North Carolina did, but because of injuries.

   That leaves me dateless, teamless, watching the madness from the sidelines.

  How tragic is this? Why do I feel so left out? What’s the big deal about March Madness anyway?

   To answer these question, I turn to 19th Century English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a first-round draft choice in her day. She is the one who asked, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. She called that little number Sonnet 43.

   With apologies to Browning, I will address the tournaments, and change the question to why do I love thee?  I have help today from the halls of academia.

   Chelsi Day, PsyD, a sport psychologist and Assistant Professor at Ohio State University, has given us her views. Perhaps she has time for such endeavors because Ohio State isn’t dancing this year either.

   “Making NCAA tournament picks that reach the Elite Eight or Final Four may be a source of pride, but do you really feel all that bad when your bracket is busted by a major upset? Probably not. And there’s a reason — it’s human nature to want to see the big guy fall. It has a lot to do with wanting the underdog to catch a break,” Day writes.

Here’s why:


   “Because most of us have never competed in sports at a high level, we relate more with the underdog than the powerhouse, so it’s nice to see the little guy win. It gives us hope that we can do big things if we try hard enough, if we have grit and perseverance.”

   “It renews our faith that we can all achieve the things we are trying to achieve, even if the odds are stacked against us.”


   “If you’ve never heard the term Schadenfreude, (SHAH’-den-froid-uh), you’re probably in the majority. But you’ve very likely experienced it. Schadenfreude is the feeling of pleasure we get from the misfortune of others.”

   “That usually happens when the others are viewed in a negative way. If they lose, it feels karmic in nature. That can especially happen with teams that have a long trail of wins or a storied history. They become the villain, and we like to see the little guy take down that Goliath.”

   “When we vilify people who experience a great deal of success, especially if we think they don’t deserve it, we feel a little vindicated when they lose.”

Subverting expectations

   “Think of your performance review at work. We all want to reach the ‘exceeds expectations’ level. We feel good when we surpass the bar that’s set for us.”

   “With March Madness, humans decide where teams land on the bracket.  So, it’s pretty cool to see a win by a team that the selection committee placed at the bottom. It’s, ‘Oh, you thought we were one of the worst four teams in this tournament? We showed you,’” Day writes.

   “We really like tales of people exceeding expectations, especially if it’s other people who set those expectations.”

Who doesn’t love a Cinderella story?

   “When the big bad wolf is slain, justice is served. And even when our brackets are among the casualties, we still feel a little bit of joy. It’s a double-edged sword. We may have some internal conflict because we could have benefited from the underdog’s loss. But there’s still that excitement and comfort that comes from feeling a sense of fairness.”

   OK hoops fans, class dismissed. Now if you’ll excuse me, I will go and look for a tournament bandwagon to jump on.

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