Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mad Structure

You Must... Fill Me
(Note: I wrote this for my corporate blog, but thought y'all might enjoy it here as well.)

As it's Selection Sunday as I write this, and I'm a very lapsed college basketball fan but a very strong professional one, I'm struck by the annual urge to dive into the tournament anyway.

Mostly because it's a teachable marketing moment.

Why? The absolutely perfect structure of the enterprise.

For all but the diehards, college basketball really isn't something you need to pay too much attention to before the actual tournament starts. Unlike the 82-game NBA regular season, the college game seems extremely skippable, since it's overlapped by other sports during its run time, and doesn't really matter beyond the highly transitory "who got snubbed" arguments. Sure, if you root for a school in a power conference and they win that title, it's nice, but it's forgotten as soon as the Madness begins.

A word about the timing. It's usually perfectly coinciding with spring celebrations like St Patrick's Day and some spring breaks. It's deep enough into the year that taking a couple days off for a 4-day orgy of bracket obsession is within reach of many workers. The highlight footage of dunks, last second shots, favorites asserting themselves, and so on translates to every platform in our digital age. There hasn't been a tournament yet that lacked for drama, because many of the games are coin flips, and a 40-minute basketball game falls into the small data sample that says anything can happen, and just might. The NBA more or less goes on mute during that initial blast, with networks switching over to the tournament. Football doesn't compete. Baseball is playing games that don't matter. It's a nearly extinct rarity in American media; a ceded time slot with a lack of competition.

The only actual problem is... the product.

Purists talk about how collegians care more and try harder on defense; this is not true, it's just that they are comparing playoff games in the tournament to not equal moments in the NBA. (Try to find lapsed defense in a Game 7, which is, in effect, what all NCAA tournament games are.) Others talk about how into it the crowds are, and sure, but again, Game 7s. The only real difference between the tournament and the NBA playoffs is the structure, which rewards luck far more than the meat grinder nature of the pro game.

Beyond the structure, there's no comparison. The NBA attracts talent from six continents at the height of their physical skills, puts them in the presence of the finest coaches in the world, then pits them against each other in a Darwinian endurance test to qualify for the post-season and acquire home court advantage. Next, it throws the same opponents together for a minimum of 192 minutes of court time to see who is best.

The coaches only coach; there is no recruiting. The players only play; there is no pretense at education, and if they choose to spend the whole of their lives at their craft, their teams will not suffer sanctions. The officiating is at a higher standard, and so is the sports medicine, scouting, practice time, strategies, and so on. It's just a better game.

And yet... that perfect structure. The bands, the crowds, the sense that if you aren't picking a bracket you are just denying yourself joy. Even though brackets almost never end in joy. The nostalgia, if you went to a school that's participating, for times gone by.

From a marketing and advertising perspective, we spend our lives seeking for similar business models and experiences. Structures that write themselves, creatives that play into such advantages, locked and loaded concepts that never fail.

We almost never find them, and even when we do, they don't endure like the NCAA tournament does.

Structure.

Find a perfect one, and everything else falls in its sway.

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