TERRE HAUTE —
People filling out NCAA brackets and the Republican presidential candidates share the same problem.
They’re focusing on the wrong things — it’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs.
Sure, statistics such as 3-point field goal defense, free throw percentage, RPI and even win-loss records could determine which team has a stronger chance to prevail in a March Madness matchup. Even the players’ heights might matter slightly. But if your brain is about to explode while trying to decide whether New Mexico or Louisville has a deeper bench, stop. Exhale. Again. Feel better?
Now, consider the intangibles. We’re not talking about previous tourney successes, team mascots or fan noise. Instead, think college-town economies. That’s right — which school’s home community has the lower unemployment rate? There’s your winner.
After all, who can say economics doesn’t affect college basketball, and vice versa? This week, the NCAA begins the second year of a 14-year, $10.8-billion deal with CBS and Turner Sports to broadcast the 67 tourney games. According to The New York Times, March Madness income accounts for 90 percent of the NCAA’s total annual revenue. Each game played by a participating team in last year’s tourney earned that school’s conference $239,664, according to NCAA.org. Television advertisers spent $738 million during the 2011 games, Media Life Magazine reports, and a 30-second ad in the Butler-UConn final sold for $1.24 million. Americans (and even folks in foreign countries) are expected to wager a cumulative $3 billion on bracket pools.
A study commissioned by Butler University last year estimated the Bulldogs’ improbable repeat run to the NCAA title game generated publicity worth $512,382,703, according to the
butlersports.com website. The school received 10,000 mentions in print, broadcast and online news coverage. That campus news release quotes athletic director Barry Collier saying, “The story of our athletes and their accomplishments in the classroom, as well as on the court, exemplifies the true meaning of student-athlete. And that story has been carried to a much larger audience, thanks to the success of the Butler basketball team.”
Alternately, it’s not a stretch to think a thriving college-town economy could spill over to the basketball court in terms of the team’s confidence, attendance and community spirit. Factor that into your final bracket. (What else are you going to consider? The snazziest uniforms? The coaches’ astrological signs?)
The formula is simple: pick the team whose college town has the lower unemployment rate, according to the most recent comparative figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That strategy sets up a fascinating Sweet Sixteen. Those schools include (in the South Region) Iowa State, New Mexico State, South Dakota State and Duke; (West Region) Michigan State, New Mexico, BYU and Missouri; (East Region) Kansas State, Wisconsin, Texas and West Virginia; and (Midwest Region) Vermont, Michigan, Georgetown and Kansas.
Of course, the system also includes some massive upsets. Still, that’s what glues us to the TV game after game. You’ll notice that Sweet Sixteen includes only one No. 1 seed, Michigan State. Using economic-based prognostication, top-seeded Kentucky would lose to eighth-seeded Iowa State in the third round. And, to the delight of underdog lovers everywhere, Syracuse and North Carolina would become the first No. 1 seeds in history to lose to a 16th seed. The Orange would get ousted by UNC-Asheville, while the Tar Heels get humbled by Vermont.
Fans in Chapel Hill, N.C., may have 7-foot Tar Heels star Tyler Zeller, but Burlington, Vt., has just 3.8 percent of its workforce on the unemployment lines. The economy of Asheville, N.C., isn’t exactly soaring, but its 7.9-percent unemployment rate (based on December) is slightly rosier than the 8.0 rate in Syracuse, N.Y. (Sorry, Orange backers.)
Perhaps that shocker by the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs would provide Hoosier basketball fans a dose of revenge for Syracuse’s victory over the Indiana State Sycamores in last year’s NCAA. They would have to settle for that small measure of satisfaction, because the Economy Bracket features some Hoosier heartaches. Indiana (with Bloomington’s 7.5-percent rate) would lose its opener to New Mexico State (6.6 in Las Cruces). Notre Dame (at 9.5 percent in South Bend) would also lose its opening game, to Xavier (7.7 in Cincinnati). Purdue (7.5 in West Lafayette) would reach the third round, but lose there to Kansas (5.0 in Lawrence).
The Economic Final Four would break new ground, with fourth-seeded Wisconsin (4.7 percent of the Madison labor force is jobless) meeting the seemingly outmanned Vermont Catamounts, with No. 2 seed Missouri (4.9 in Columbia) facing 14th-seeded South Dakota State (a NCAA-best 3.5 percent in Brookings).
It would seem impossible for Vermont — with just two seniors, a 3,266-seat home gym, and a mere 67 points-per-game scoring average — to defeat Wisconsin of the Big Ten and its stingy defense. Let’s not forget, though, that Burlington’s economy boasts a winning combination of education and health care facilities, as well as retail, transportation and utilities.
Sticking to the format (and, clearly, we’ve done exactly that), Missouri would lose a semifinals stunner of biblical proportions to South Dakota State, a school that has played at the Division I level for just nine years. Then, further tilting Earth from its axis, the Jackrabbits of the Summit League and Vermont of the America East Conference would meet in the final, aiming to go one step beyond the Butler dream. The economic numbers say South Dakota State beats Vermont.
If so, the town of Brookings — already home to busy factories manufacturing electronic signs, medical supplies, storm doors and playground equipment — might need to put a few more people to work doing market research to calculate the dollar value of South Dakota State’s NCAA publicity.
Then again, if you’re counting on the NCAA bracket as a source of income, pick Kentucky to win it all.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.