By Kirchheimer, Sid
The Saturday Evening Post , Vol. 284, No. 2
LET THE MADNESS BEGIN! March is the time when vasectomies increase by 50 percent thanks to the much-anticipated opportunity for patients to "recover" in front of their TVs.
March is also the time when workplaces do some real number-crunching: on the expected loss in employee productivity (estimated at 8.4 million hours and $192 million last year); on money bet on office pools (a hefty chunk of the $2.5 billion in total sports wagering each year); and even on the number of times workers hit the so-called "Boss Button" (computer software that instantly hides live video of games with a phony business spreadsheet), which was activated more than 3.3 million times during the first four days of last year's tournament.
But mostly, the NCAA Basketball Championship--better known as "March Madness" or "The Big Dance"--is a time that gives us something to cheer about beyond the game itself. If history and science hold true, no matter the outcome of the three-week tournament that begins March 13, most of the millions who will follow its hard-court action will emerge as winners. "That's because in the long run it's really not the games that matter," says Daniel Wann, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Murray State University in Kentucky and author of Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators. "Being a fan gives us something to talk about, to share and bond with others. And for the vast majority of people, it's psychologically healthier when you can increase social connections with others."
After conducting some 200 studies over the past two decades, Wann, a leading researcher on "sports fandom," finds consistent results: people who identify themselves as sports fans tend to have lower rates of depression and higher self-esteem than those who don't. Blame it on our primal nature. "Sports fandom is really a tribal thing," says Wann, a phenomenon that can help fulfill our psychological need to belong--providing similar benefits to the social support achieved through religious, professional, or other affiliations. "We've known for decades that social support--our tribal network--is largely responsible for keeping people mentally sound. We really do have a need to connect with others in some way."
But when it comes to opportunities to connect, the Big Dance may have a foothold over other sporting events. "The beauty of March Madness is that it attracts people of all levels of sports fandom--and for different reasons," says Edward Hirt, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Indiana University who researches how fanship affects social identity.
Some watch, whether or not they usually follow sports, because they are alumni or have another previous affiliation to these "tribal networks"--the 60-plus participating college teams. Others connect on the spot, perhaps because it's easier to form emotional allegiances with gutsy amateur athletes who compete with heart and soul (and while juggling midterm exams) rather than for the paychecks collected by millionaire pros.
Also consider the unique nature of the tournament itself--a series of back-to-back games over the course of several weeks with little to no idle time in between during which a casual fan might lose interest. "I have not seen any empirical evidence to support that March Madness is necessarily better than other sports events" for promoting mood and mindset enhancements. "But theoretically I expect it could be," says Wann. "There are only a couple of events--the Super Bowl also comes to mind--that seem to transcend typical fandom into being akin to a national holiday ... a reason for people to get together. But with the Super Bowl, everything leads to one game--and most of the time it's an anticlimatic one that's over by half-time."
With March Madness, however, Wann notes, "there's a longer, more drawn out event that provides more opportunities to engage in social opportunities and connections. …