The Case for Canada: Adding a Canadian Team to March Madness
March Madness is one of the greatest spectacles in sport. For nearly a full month, 68 NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division 1 schools fight to be the sole survivor and be crowned NCAA champions. This tournament has exploded in popularity over the past 2 decades. The tournament’s audience has also expanded north of the border, as Canadians have begun to join in on the basketball craze. In 2015, Bell Media reported a 24% increase in viewership for March Madness compared to the 2014 tournament. In total, 6.9 million unique Canadian viewers took in a portion of the 2015 tournament. Furthermore, that year’s Final saw a 62% increase in viewership compared to 2014’s.
Much of this increase in viewership came with TSN’s expanded coverage of the NCAA in 2014, but in particular their coverage of the Kansas Jayhawks because of young Canadian Andrew Wiggins. However, for the viewership to not only hold, but increase in 2015, it showed excellent promise for the future marketability of March Madness in Canada. This poses the question, other than viewership, how could the NCAA market March Madness to Canadians? This has been done with Canadian players. In 2017, 26 Canadians took part in March Madness, highlighted with the Oregon Ducks and their trio of Canadians (Dillion Brooks, Chris Boucher and Dylan Ennis) who made a Final Four run. Canadian basketball and its influence on the NCAA is at its peak, as Canada continues to churn out high quality prospects, highlighted by next year’s #1 recruit R.J. Barrett. Barrett has committed to Duke University, and will certainly be garnering the attention of Canadians in the lead-up to March Madness.
In the fallout of next year’s tournament, and in the wake of potential increased viewership, the NCAA should take the next step for expansion into the Canadian market. Give the U SPORTS champion a spot in March Madness. Currently, U SPORTS men’s basketball holds their annual Final 8 tournament the week before March Madness. Therefore, it would only make sense that the winner of the Final 8 would gain a spot in the NCAA tournament and represent Canada in March Madness. This idea may seem far-fetched, but hear me out. NCAA pre-season games vs U SPORTS schools have shown that Canadian schools can hang with mid to high majors and even some Power 6 teams. The Carleton Ravens, the class of USPORTS men’s basketball, played 11 pre-season games versus D-1 NCAA schools in 2017. They went 9-2, winning all 3 games against Power 6 conference teams. Furthermore, in the majority of these games the NCAA schools were playing their starters. Alabama, who lost 84-71, played projected NBA lottery pick, Collin Sexton. Sexton went 4 of 13 from the field and was held to just 15 points. While these may be pre-season games, they should also be huge indicators of the quality U SPORTS possesses.
In spite of this talent, I do agree it would be unfair to take away a spot from an NCAA team who earned it, especially mid-major schools. But, there is a solution. When the First Four was introduced it took March Madness from 64 to 68 teams, adding in 4 “play-in” games for bubble teams and low mid-major conference winners. The winners of the First Four games make it to the First Round of March Madness, joining 60 other teams. The First Four is annually held in Dayton, Ohio on the Tuesday and Wednesday before March Madness begin, and has helped expand the tournament’s length and media presence. With this in mind, why not have 2 First Fours? This solution appeases 2 populations; the angry fans of bubble teams who missed out on the tournament thanks to the selection committee, and it appeases Canada who would get to see a U SPORTS school do battle with NCAA schools in March Madness. Angry populations of many NCAA mid-majors could benefit from additional at-large bids. Schools such as Monmouth, who, despite a 27-7 record, missed out on March Madness last year, would instead get an opportunity to participate with these additional “play-in” games.
The venue for this second First Four could easily be Buffalo, who hosted First/Second round March Madness match-ups last year. Putting the second First Four in Buffalo also gives a pipeline for Canadians to come and take in the First Four action as it borders Canada. Consequently, Southern Ontario and Toronto itself could make the trip down. These two regions have never been more interested in basketball with the Toronto Raptors rise in popularity. While adding more teams to March Madness may seem over-saturated, an additional 4 teams makes much more sense than the NCAA’s pondered expansion to 128 teams.
This expansion would do wonders for the NCAA, as it is not only an expansion of their tournament, but of their market. Furthermore, it could elevate Canadian basketball to an even higher level and encourage more youth to dribble a basketball. In a time where the NCAA has seen some of its basketball programs go under FBI investigation, it may be wise to shed a positive light by granting a huge opportunity to a U SPORTS school. Is it possible to expect anything like this to happen within the next 5 years? Probably not. But, the NCAA would be naïve to brush this aside. The numbers do not lie, and they spell success for the NCAA with the addition of the U SPORTS champion to March Madness.