Saturday afternoon, in Arlington, Texas, something amazing is going to happen. More people will show up in the same building, at the same time, to watch a college basketball game than ever have in recorded human history. The all-time world record attendance for college basketball is 78,129, at Ford Field in Detroit back in 2003, for a game between Michigan State and (of course) Kentucky.
The Final Four this year should shatter that. Capacity is 80,000 at AT&T Stadium -- you probably still know it as Cowboys Stadium -- though depending on how many standing room only seats are open, it could get up to 100,000. And they'll sell every single one of them: If you want a ticket to the games on Saturday, it'll run you a minimum of $200 on StubHub. Now, it's very possible that a large percentage of those people won't have the foggiest idea of what's going on in the game, because their seats are so far away. At least they'll be able to watch the game on the massive Jerry World HD screen, since seeing the game itself will be close to impossible.
Now, there are arguments that this sort of environment is not ideal for college basketball. Three years ago, at the biggest college hoops venue before Jerry World, at Reliant Stadium in (obviously) Texas, more than 70,000 people watched Connecticut beat Butler to win the 2011 NCAA National Championship. If you weren't at that game, you might not remember it because you probably turned it off by halftime. It was notoriously one of the ugliest title games of all time, with Connecticut shooting 34.6 percent from the field and Butler somehow managing only 18.8 percent. The venue was widely considered to be at least partly to blame; as Hall of Fame basketball reporter Dick Weiss put it , "College basketball deserved better for the culmination of its season. Instead, it got an unwatchable study in frustration played out in a vast football stadium where there was no depth perception for shooters and the baskets appeared to be floating in space."
But no one is going to care about that when they're talking about this vast massiveness: For crying out loud, there were going to be a ton of fans at Cowboys Stadium before Kentucky surprisingly made the Final Four. It's going to be a madhouse there. And it's also going to be a culmination. Because it's difficult to argue this hasn't been one of the most successful NCAA tournaments in many moons.
The games themselves have been terrific, with pretty much everything you could want: Early-round upsets (hi, Duke!); lovable dark horses (Dayton, Harvard); the consensus No. 1 team advancing (Florida); surprising runs by college basketball hotbeds (Connecticut); Kentucky (Kentucky); and, more than anything else, just a wild succession of outstanding games that went down to the last seconds. (Kentucky itself has been involved in two of the best tourney games in recent years, against Wichita State and Michigan.) And the television ratings have reflected the increased quality -- something television ratings rarely seem to do -- with 9.8 million viewers, the highest number in 21 years. For all the talk of a slowed-down, choppy game in which no one can shoot and a bunch of 19-year-olds who are just biding their time until they can go to the NBA, this has been the best-case scenario for the NCAA and their tournament. This is everything working out perfectly.
Except: This, of course, comes among the backdrop of everything else in the college athletics world finding itself in existential peril. The Ed O'Bannon lawsuit was the first major strike, but it has opened up the NCAA, and the whole illusionist notion of a "student-athlete," to a wave of new challenges, most recently and notably Kain Colter's attempts to push unionization into the mix. In the past, we could watch the NCAA tournament and pretend everything was (basically) on the level, buy into the notion that this was somehow amateurism and non-profit and just a big fun bracket.
It's pretty difficult for anyone who's not being intellectually dishonest to do that anymore. While the ratings are through the roof, and they're setting attendance records, and Greg Gumbel is crowing about the NCAA's Corporate Champions at Coca-Cola and AT&T, it starts to feel that much more sinister -- absurd, really -- that none of these players putting their bodies on the line for our amusement are going to get a dime out of it. Somehow I get the sense that all those Charles Barkley Capital One ads are covering a little bit more than these kids' scholarships. The good news for the NCAA is the tournament is so popular and so huge now. The bad news is that it makes it impossible to ignore the obvious imbalance. You start to feel like a jerk letting them get away with it.
For years, many have argued that the major instrument of change in this system will have to come from the players themselves: They're going to have to, collectively, at the last minute in a huge money-making event like this, refuse to come on the court out of protest of an obviously unfair system. This has always seemed like a lot to ask of 20-year-olds, particularly on the biggest stage of their lives, playing a game they live for with the possibility of someday getting paid for it (something such an act of protest would inevitably damage). But if there were ever a time to do it, it's now. Never would the hypocrisy at the sport's core be more aptly exposed.
These are heady times for the tournament, and I, like you, can't wait to watch. But when something's this much fun, and this thriving, it shines a brighter light on everything that is wrong. And there's a lot wrong. It's going to be a fantastic show this weekend. We should all just be reminded of what, exactly, we're all paying for it.
* * *