How to fix Ivy Madness

While Harvard and Yale were fighting for their March Madness lives in New Haven several months ago, I was flying (first class, of course) towards Asia in a hurtling, subsonic piece of aluminum. As we chased the sun eastward, I indolently pulled up my window shade and looked out upon the vast, barren, frigidness that is the Arctic Ocean. Then, through the miracle of Wi-Fi (you know, that powerful, invisible force that allows our planet to torment one another through magic), I proceeded to watch the Bulldogs dismantle their arch rivals before a, well, ”mostly filled” John J. Lee Amphitheater. Regardless of how the crowd appeared on site, I can assure you it did not “show well” at 33,000 feet on a 15-inch screen. In fact, the view from my window of Arctic Ocean seemed to be an appropriate metaphor for the vast sea of empty seats above the hardwood. (I exaggerate, naturally, but not too much.)

Why should this be? Up until this year, I had attended the first two Ivy League Tournaments at the Palestra. My rabid partisanship aside, I can safely say the ancient hall (with more than three times as many seats as John J.) was almost filled to capacity for most of the men’s games. For the Penn-Harvard Championship game in 2018, the arena’s corners were completely occupied – the sound, deafening; the atmosphere, raucous; the victory, sweet. This was accomplished despite the fact that the university student body was away on spring break (as it has been every year since the tournament’s inception.) Why was this not then replicated at Yale a year later with the Ivy’s two most fierce rivals battling for all the basketball marbles? Is it simply a matter of fan apathy? I mean, the Yale Bowl and Harvard Stadium, two the league’s biggest fields, get tens of thousands of people for meaningless football games in November (often in poor weather) and their hoops teams can’t muster 3,000 people to watch a basketball in climate-controlled conditions with national implications?

If the Ivy League cannot fill a puny hoops hall for its two biggest adversaries in the marquee basketball event of the year, then I would have to say that “Ivy Madness” is indeed madness. Access, or lack of it, is not the reason for poor attendance. While Philadelphia is a major transit center ,New Haven, despite its violent reputation, does (at least I hear) have rail service and is near major highways. Regardless, the games did not sell out. Why then, is the league insisting on rotating the venue to other even more backwater hoops halls in Hanover, Ithaca and Providence, where the most likely audience will be Senokot-swigging, blue-haired and Medicare-eligible? I love the Quakers, but not even I plan on attending games at the aforementioned wild frontier schools — and that should tell you something.

In truth, I had never been a fan of the tournament format. However, as the years have passed (and the Quakers have managed to participate in each of the year-end carnivals), I have begun to soften my view and now view the end-of-season “Madness” as an exciting coda to what was once a diffident and languid march to March for anywhere from five to seven unfortunate squads. Still, when it comes to putting on a show and attracting an audience, I remain unclear as to what exactly the Ivy League Athletics Office trying to do? Full disclosure: I do not sit at the lugubrious conference table across from the much decorated Robin Harris in Princeton (though clearly, I should), so I do not have any inside information with regard to this question.

What then is the league’s real goal in hosting a year end basketball tournament? There are of course several possibilities: raise the national profile of the league, generate revenue through TV rights, try to get all of its member universities involved no matter how disinterested and apathetic the local population is to college basketball, and finally, attract both students and alumni to have some hoops fun for a few afternoons. Let’s dissect a few of these thoughts.

I don’t think I am alone in saying that the Palestra is without question the best venue for any tournament. However, I do understand the homecourt and recruiting advantage it would give Penn and how its rival coaches would object to this. On the other hand, it is also clear that rotating the site is definitely not the answer. Varsity sport attendance is on the decline nationwide. Nevertheless, if the Ivy League, in its infinite wisdom, insists on continuing the present round-robin format, please consider this:

My overall impression of Ivy Madness (at least in Philly) is that it is not at all a student-driven experience. (Not even a little bit.) The vast majority of the audience that filled the Palestra for two years was decidedly middle-aged and older. Much of this had to do with the aforementioned spring break logistics, but it also appears, sorry to say, that the students, even at Penn with its long hoops tradition, simply no longer care about basketball. I have no proof of this save for the eye test over the last few decades — but the test has unfortunately proven to be quite harsh in its verdict. Aside from the school bands, there was virtually no student section despite Penn playing Princeton and Harvard playing Yale one year.

This being said, the league absolutely blew it in every way. First, if it wants to put out a truly successful product, it must at least attempt to cater to this older demographic, not the 20-year olds. An older audience also has different needs and interests than college students. They’re busy, they have jobs and families, so an afternoon traveling to a ball game in a distant city should be more than just watching AJ Brodeur dunk on Princeton (although that’s always worth the price of admission). Granted, the hoops matchups are indeed the main event, but I took the day off and traveled from New York to Philadelphia and there was never really anything else “fun” about attending the games. (The Ivy ice sculpture? Wow, awesome.)

For starters, get some decent catering tents outside the event venue serving interesting local fare. It’s like more expensive tailgating. In Philly it could have been $30 cheese steaks. In Boston this year it could be $60 chowder and $150 lobster claws. In New Haven last year it could have been prison chow served on freshly made license plates. A good meal makes a loss easier to take and a win even sweeter. It also adds a dimension of local color, plus these folks have the money to buy it.

In terms of merchandising, it is more than evident the league absolutely has no idea what it’s doing. At the Palestra, they had 9,000 captive, well-educated (except the year Cornell attended) well-heeled people who would have liked nothing more than to shell out $50 for a cool T-shirt, hat or sweatshirt as long as their school logo appeared somewhere on it. No imagination in this regard whatsoever. Instead, there was a small counter with a few poorly and hastily made Ivy-branded items — but no school logos. (Robin, just to let you know, no one gives a shit about the Ivy League logo except you.)

Finally, and I’m reaching here, you have a lot of smart, curious people hanging around the boondocks of New Hampshire or the Finger Lakes with some free time for a few hours.

Why not make it a true Ivy League event rather than just an Ivy hoops event? Why not then show off the intellectual currency of the host institution? Before or between men’s and women’s games, have an area where the school’s professors can give two-minute lectures on global warming, the future of male birth control, Freud’s cocaine addiction, high-energy physics or why the tournament is so fucking boring. Penn professors do these brief talks on the college green and it’s proven to be highly successful and popular with the university community. By definition, these spectators are also very competitive people as well. So why not have a brief current events or sports trivia contest complete with prizes hosted by a professor or a grad student? (I’d be willing to host it, but please don’t even bother calling my agent. I’m afraid my appearance fee would probably cost more than the entire two-day event. My apologies in advance.) The league could even charge a nominal fee to enter (even more cash!!). I guarantee people will pay it. Finally, have some stupid-ass ticket raffles and/or giveaways. Every sporting event does this and here’s your chance to unload all that Ivy-branded crap that no one actually wants or an opportunity support a local store or restaurant. (Desperately needed in New Haven.)

Bottom line: C’mon Robin, use a little imagination and if you’re going for the cash, go for the cash. Don’t be shy.

Although these are all amazingly imaginative and awesome ideas (you’re welcome), what can now be done about this postseason conundrum of rotating Ivy Madness to bullshit venues in uninteresting and disinterested wasteland sites as well the question overall Ivy Boredom?

I, The AQ, will now present the solution — Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino, Uncasville, Conn.

Before you groan and say, “Are you kidding me, that trashy den of filth?”( Look, it’s a casino, not a whorehouse.) Please allow me to now lay out both the many pros and cons, and both are prodigious.

The Pros:

1. Mohegan Sun’s location could not be more perfect. It is in the heart of Ivy country in southern New England and a reasonable drive from everywhere, even Philadelphia.

2. The arena has a capacity of 10,000 spectators making it slightly larger than the Palestra, but not massive enough, a la Madison Square Garden, to dwarf the crowd in a sea of vacant seats.

3. It is the absolute perfect venue for the middle-aged and older crowd that appears to be the target audience for this event. (Whether the league views “target “the same way I do or if they even have a target at all, remains a mystery except for a small chosen few.) For starters, Mohegan Sun is a great hotel with many variable room rates ranging from the Brown University freshman Chef-Boy-R-Dee financial aid package to the massive, top floor AQ Medici Suite. There is also no shortage of things to do both before and after the games. There are shows, restaurants for every budget, spas and massages, athletic facilities and, of course, gambling. The location will also attract a much more casual fan that will help sell basketball seats.  For example, although my wife (who holds five Ivy League degrees) has little interest in hoops, I am certain that I could get her to accompany me simply for the latter reason alone. (True story: Earlier in her life, she was a professional card counter until she was eventually prohibited from visiting the Atlantic City casinos. I am certain she’d love to come out of retirement if the opportunity arose. Plus, Papa needs a new Maserati.)

This being said, there is a plethora of things to see and do and the boredom factor for “Ivy Madness” would be completely extinguished. With all of these available activities, it is also more likely that many spectators will stay for both days of men’s and women’s games by making a “weekend” out of what could be a mini-vacation. The Resort also holds the possibility of a decent spring break destination for those students who seek similar debauchery but are not inclined to travel to more warmer climes.

4. It will give the tournament a truly neutral court for ultimate fairness. (There is no question in my mind that Penn benefited greatly in 2018 from its home court advantage, as did Yale last year and most likely Harvard will this year.) In addition, the location would give the games more of a “big time” feel which could never be obtained at the multitude of high school-caliber gyms that populate all of the non-P campuses. Finally, the tournament will look good on TV to both the casual fan as well as prospective recruits.

And now for the cons (and they are significant) ….

1. It’s a casino and the gambling age in Connecticut is 21 years old. Thus, half of the undergraduate student body could not participate in these particular extracurricular activities.

2. It’s an expensive destination for college students. (So is going to New York for the Big East Tournament, but somehow MSG sells out and Manhattan has all kinds of bad things to do.) Aside from attending the games, the younger attendees may or may not be able to partake in all the other activities the Resort has to offer that aren’t gambling related. What’s more, the league also risks alienating the underage students, who are it appears already highly indifferent towards college sports, even more. On the other hand, you might engage the upperclassmen who will soon have money of their own to spend to attend.

3. A gambling resort is not a great “look” for the stuffy Ivy League and it would probably be a very hard sell to the even more tight-ass school Presidents. Do they really want to have their wholesome basketball tournament associated with a place where the most prominent activity is outlawed in most states? In addition, because half of the undergraduate population could not participate in said activity, will it make it too exclusionary?

There are no simple answers — although this, I think, is a good one. Mostly, it all depends on how the league sees the goal of having a postseason tournament in the first place. For the casual observer, their aim, besides equality, seems far from clear. Do they what to make money or make it fair, or both? Do they what to stimulate interest in college basketball or settle for the Dartmouth “Ol’ McDonald Horse and Heifer Half Time Show” in Hanover, N.H. getting beamed around the world? It’s not like the Ivy League hasn’t been to Vegas before either. In 1990, Cornell played UNLV in Nevada and no one stopped the team from going just because there was gambling in town. Therefore, like anything in life, one must either evolve or perish. Ivy Madness was a bold start, but in its present form, I think all would agree, it’s simply not good enough. It’s time to evolve.

Robin, the ball is in your court.

Stay Red & Blue, my Friends,

The AQ

4 thoughts on “How to fix Ivy Madness”

  1. The simplest answer: Force Columbia to renovate (or replace!) Levien, adding 7,000 seats. Host the tournament in NYC every year, in a city that may as well be a neutral site for all 8 teams.

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  2. Counter-point: Dartmouth last won an Ivy League title in 1959-60. We’ve been literally and figuratively in the wilderness for nearly sixty years. The good people of Hanover deserve to see some postseason basketball once every eight years, even if the Big Green doesn’t get to participate—and if the promise of a home playoff game drives them into the top four of the league that year, I wouldn’t want them to have to instead take their talents all the way to the Palestra, a destination to which Dartmouth basketball fans would probably not be willing to travel en masse.

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