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March Madness: An “Experiential Commodity” with Money for the Men, Only Fame for the Women, and an Illusion for the Fans

It’s time for March Madness again, the scrambling tournament to determine the number one men and women’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I collegiate basketball teams in the United States. Teams from universities all over the U.S. will compete for 19 days, and every game will be televised.
For the men’s division 68 teams will play 67 games. The women will start with 64 teams to determine their championship team, but that is where the similarities between the two tournaments end. In addition, this event has become one of the “Spectacular Experiences,” that is, an ultimate commodity produced for mass consumption. But more on this in a minute.
Nearly everyone associates March Madness with the men’s tournament, and the NCAA encourages this gender bias. Over 45 years after the passage of Title IX, women constitute 44 percent of all college athletes, yet they are over 55 percent of the all undergraduate students. Women’s sports receive 32 percent as much travel money as men’s sports, 29 percent as much recruiting resources, 22 percent as much for equipment and supplies, and 16 percent as much for all other operating expenses. And there is a lot of money made from both tournaments, but the women are clearly cheated in the distribution of these mega-dollars.

Last year the NCAA made over $1 billion dollars from March Madness for all the various revenue sources. These include ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, media fees and the plethora of television ads that come with the televised games. The most lucrative source of money are the television rights. Starting in 2010 the NCAA signed a fourteen-year, $10.8 billion contract with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting, paid over the fourteen-year term. The deal was extended in April 2016 for another combined total rights fee of $8.8 billion that will keep the tournament on these networks until 2032. The NCAA will earn an average of around $900 million annually, or about 90% of its annual revenue from March Madness.
And the players, who are central to making this all happen are not paid anything. But the university programs do make money. Each team’s conferences will get a piece of a $220 million pot of money. For each game a team plays, its conference gets a payout, spread over six years. For playing one game the team’s conference gets roughly $1.7 million. If a team makes it all the way to the final game, it can earn as many as five units, totaling $8.3 million. If a team makes the final game from the first-four bracket, it could earn a total of six units. And of course, none of this includes the billions that will be bet, legally and illegally, on the tournaments over the three weeks that they are played.

March Madness is just one of the many “Spectacular Experiences” which generate billions in revenue, and which creates the illusion of community and meaningful times. The commodification of everyday life, which is one of the hallmarks of capitalist society, creates a reality in which the satisfaction of needs on all levels is sublimated or suppressed into the commodity form.

The value of every experience is tested against the criteria of a commodity, that is, does it have or embody a transformative nature where by the use-value/exchange-value unity is consumable to create a satisfaction of a need. At the same time, the nature of capitalism is to continually create new needs and wants such that the expansion of consumerism and the economy keeps capital in motion, allowing the further realization and accumulation of surplus-value as profit. The consumer culture is created and recreated on a daily basis.
Experience as a commodity in the early twenty-first century is a multifaceted industry worth billions of dollars in sales which is based on the creation of a unique class of needs. This industry encompasses recreation, art, drama, sports, travel, film, television, and a myriad of other cultural immersions. At one end, you can have these experiences and adventures first hand, at the other end, a person can have these same exposures in a form of technological vicariousness through high definition television, surround sound, and 3-D Blue Ray video. An inherent aspect of any of these unique cultural experience-commodities is that they expose the “fetishism of commodities,” that is, the mystical or fantasy nature of an item which “as soon as it emerges as a commodity . . . it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness.” Advertising, sales and marketing, and the lure of the intensity of a visual-orgasmic promise is to turn these experiences into a “reality.”
In today’s mass culture various media events have evolved, often from humble beginnings, to be major socio-cultural experiences which serve the re-creation and sustainment of nationalism, patriotism and the creation of other sub-communities which perpetuate allegiance to the national identity. Often these events unite people around a chosen ‘community’ oriented towards affinity with a common interest. Classic examples on a national scale are, amateur and professional sports championships such as baseball’s World Series, American football’s Super Bowl, the NBA championships, the NCAA March Madness for men and women’s national championship and of course the BCS bowl playoffs for college football’s national championship. Internationally there are equal events, Stanley Cup playoffs in ice hockey, the Ryder Cup and Solvang Cup in men and women’s professional golf, and of course, the two big ones, the Olympics (summer and winter) and the World Cup play for soccer (futbol).
The use of mass media and cultural events such as these creates a synthesis of both a genuine, popular nationalist enthusiasm and systematic, even Machiavellian, instilling of nationalist ideology, as these events have become international spectacles. In this way, these events, as commodities serve a dual function of on the one hand, aiding in the further amassing of capital (surplus-value) and in reinforcing a nationalist spirit which covers or hides the exploitation of people and economies of both the host country and the visitors through the creation of an “experiential commodity.”.
What is an experiential commodity? It is a commodity (it is a unity of use-value and exchange-value) whereby participation in a spatial and temporal cultural event renders the satisfaction of a need for the consumer. The nature of an experiential commodity is such that what is consumed is not a thing but rather the duration of a psycho-social event. This can be done directly, by attending the event in person, or indirectly by watching and listening by television, or even later by film or video, or even simply an audio recording or magazine article. Each of these levels of removal from the actual event diminish the quality of the experience, and subsequently, each level of removal comes at a lower cost.
Experiential commodities, like any other commodity, have no value if there is no demand for them. As such, years of sales and marketing efforts are developed in the promotion of an aesthetic longing for participation in this experience. For sports spectaculars like March Madness, the Olympics, the World Cup or the Super Bowl, personalities, narratives, romance, and enchantment are developed around the participants and their rivalry. These in turn create an identity with teams and players which develop other layers of ‘imagined communities’ such as Seahawk fans or Forty-niner fans. Individual players, likewise, develop a fan base or following which is manufactured by additional press releases and advertising which create a persona based on the weaving of myth and reality, often with overt romantic and sexual components designed to enhance the allure.
At the same time, counter-images are created against persons, teams, and nations in order to develop rivalry and ‘thicken the plot’ by the creation of the ‘Other’ who is to play an opposing role in the drama which has yet to unfold. Again, the weaving of myth and reality through sales and marketing, news specials, magazine articles, etc. manufactures additional interest in the upcoming event, adding to the incentive to ‘be there’ when it finally happens. Because sports are just another aspect of life, albeit a huge financial industry, all aspects of the participants – players, teams, leagues, countries – are permeated with and beholden to the forces of capitalist exploitation. The enormous salaries paid to major league players of all sports, world-wide, are just a glimpse into the incredible value that is generated in the creation and consumption of these experiential commodities.
The magic of this experiential commodity is not only its role in the creation of immense amassing of more capital, but the fact that it evaporates at the moment of its completion. The consumer is left with memories, souvenirs, and claims to “have been there” when ‘It’ happened. The intangible is deemed tangible, the residue of experience drifts away in smoke rings, the distant roar of the crowd, and like the wind blowing hot dog wrappers across the empty parking lot, a faded recollection is all that remains. The consumer is driven to return for more, to re-satiate the need to be there once again, to witness the big play, the slam-dunk, the impossible goal, the final down, the scoring drive with only seconds left to play, to be part of something bigger, but what is objectively simply to be an anonymous member of an imagined community. Perhaps this is the real March Madness.

Jim Smith

2 Comments

  1. Bob McAndrews on April 18, 2019 at 9:48 am

    Jim, This is a blistering critique not just of March Madness but all commodification of human experiences. This process is so imbedded in our culture that most people do not even recognize their complicity as either purveyors or consumers – most likely both. So my question for you (and any others who may want to weigh in) is how is it possible to weed out the most insidious capitalistic corruption and commodification from simply being able to enjoy human performances in sports, music, theater, etc.? The salaries of many sports figures and pop celebrities are obscene. Is it possible to reverse course and support more amateur events? Are the olympics at all distinct (barring the more recent inclusion of professional athletes, such as pro basketball, hockey, etc.)? – Bob

    • Jim on April 19, 2019 at 4:37 pm

      Bob,

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t believe we can eliminate the commodification of every aspect of our lives without eliminating the capitalist system which is driven to this end in order to amass more wealth. Until we no longer allow capital, which is a social relation, a social construct, if you will, to define nearly every aspect of human experience, there is no escape, or as Sartre would have said, no exit. But the human species has the objective capability to realize that freedom from this socioeconomic nightmare is possible, if we can only gain the subjective insight and will to say enough is enough. Perhaps the ecological crisis is bringing that awareness. For the sake of your and my, and everyone else’s children and grandchildren (and all the endangered species) let’s hope so. Politicians and industry leaders don’t care. The have joined the ranks of the 1 % and are hoping Elon Musk can get them on a rocket to Mars when all hell (literally) breaks loose.

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