When March Madness comes around, the entire country fills out a bracket. Productivity in businesses across the country collectively decreases. It is a communal event, shared between sports fans and non-sports fans alike.
When the NBA playoffs roll around, the nation yawns. The NBA is exciting to its fans, but a very specific group of people tunes in to watch the playoffs. It does not have the broad appeal of the NCAA tournament.
Why is college basketball more popular?
Across America, sheets of paper with the same words on them make their way around offices. CBS Sportsline and Yahoo! start raking in more hits than ever before. Brackets infiltrate every aspect of life—and everyone fills them out.
People who don't ordinarily follow college basketball fill out brackets. They begin to care about the outcomes of games and might even start watching the games. Everyone with a bracket cares about who wins because money is often on the line.
In the NBA, hardcore gamblers might place bets on the eventual NBA champions, but few casual fans will. When the NBA begins to appeal to the average person as opposed to only hardcore fans, it will start to compete with the NCAA.
A single game is infinitely more exciting than a series. While a Game 7 often gets high ratings in the NBA playoffs, every NCAA game is do or die for each team involved.
A late-game run with a buzzer-beater is enough to send one team to the next round and the other back home. Shocks and memorable moments come when every game matters.
In the NBA, a team can lose the first three games of the series, but it doesn't matter if it comes back to win.
It's too slow-paced. Single-game elimination tournaments are magical.
Fans are more loyal to college basketball teams than NBA teams. Many fans went to the schools they root for. The fanbases are far more localized than NBA teams that draw followings from entire regions.
While all of New England might root for the Celtics, UConn fans are a distinct group from Boston College fans, and both are entirely different from Providence College fans.
The passion for the game is tangible. A home game in college basketball gets loud—fast. Students and alumni alike feel a kinship with the players and want their school to win because it's a part of them.
College players don't get paid—most of the time. This allows college basketball fans to believe that they are playing for the love of the game. Everyone plays hard because they care about their future—and ideally about their school.
While LeBron James has taken flak for his decision to leave Cleveland for a better team in Miami, Kemba Walker has spent his entire career at UConn. Any decision to leave would have cost him a year in playing time.
Loyalty is almost a requirement in the NCAA, and fans get attached to players, often for four years at a time.
The NBA. It's where the expected happens. While some David will beat a Goliath in the NCAA tournament each year, in the NBA playoffs, there are few upsets.
When there are any upsets at all, they are less dramatic. Even the last seed in the playoffs is often a good team that has beaten the best team in the league at some point in the season.
Conference play in the NCAA makes it hard to compare mid-majors with power conference teams. Upsets are the reason the NCAA tournament is so popular, because when fans have no rooting interest in a game, they root for the underdog. They keep watching if the underdog wins.