What’s all the Fuss About?

Kansas player and Legendary coach Dean Smith (#22 in white jersey) fights for a loose ball in the NCAA tourney

The NCAA Basketball Tournament–aka March Madness–will be in full swing by the time this article is published. The tournament, also referred to as the “Big Dance” is in its 79th year and has an abundance of things to teach people in the business world, specifically those working as recruiters, sourcers, and HR professionals.

Millions of eyeballs will become fixated on the hardwood for the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments. For a 3 week period, every March, people become captivated by college basketball. What is the big draw to this event and what are the take-away’s for those working in HR and Recruiting?

These are the questions I will ponder in this article. Turns out there are several valuable things that can be learned from story lines that are created by the spectacle of March Madness.

Incidentally, WalletHub has compiled “March Madness Stats & Fun Facts” showing precisely what ‘all the fuss is about’ and the numbers are telling. Clearly the “Big Dance” is lucrative for many people and a part of Americana that is worthy of a closer look.

Startling Facts about March Madness:

The Oregon Ducks won the first NCAA Basketball Championship in 1939

  • It’s estimated that 10% of the U.S. population (32 million people) will fill out an NCAA tournament bracket predicting the winners of all 66 games – the odds of filling out a perfect bracket are an astounding 1 in 9.2 quintillion–9,223,372,036,854,777,808 (Warren Buffett has offered $1B in the past for anyone that predicts a perfect bracket) – he’s never had to pay that bill
  • Tournament brackets completed in 2016: 70,0000,000 – by way of contrast there were 129,000,000 ballots cast for President in 2016
  • Corporate losses due to unproductive workers during March Madness are guesstimated at $4 Billion
  • 2017 Final Four’s projected impact on host city – Phoenix, AR – $100-$150 Million
  • Estimated amount wagered on the 2016 NCAA tournament: $9.2 Billion
  • Estimated amount wagered on the 2016 NCAA tournament illegally$8.9 Billion
  • March Madness profits for Las Vegas Casinos in 2016: $100 Million
  • Average annual increase in the value of March Madness tournament’s TV rights since 1986: 4,535%
  • TV ad revenue from the 2015 NCAA tournament: 1.19 Billion
  • CBS/Turner Broadcasting paid $19.6 Billion for the TV rights for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament from 2011 to 2032
  • Twitter and Facebook impressions generated by the 2016 National Championship: 56,000,000 (up 112% from 2015)

It’s clear that March Madness is big business and has a unique way of drawing in viewers. If we go deeper we see that there are a few common themes at play for the Big Dance. These ideas are also highly relevant to folks in professional recruiting, sourcing, and HR. If we can understand why the tournament is so beloved perhaps we can apply some of those principles to the world of recruiting.

We Love Underdog Stories

Jim Valvano’s NC State Wolfpack overcame huge odds to win the 1983 Championship over Houston

In American culture, literature, art, and sports a lot of love is shown to ‘underdogs’ that prevail against seemingly insurmountable odds. A few examples in literature could include protagonists like: Lennis Small in Of Mice and Men, Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, Oliver Twist in Oliver Twist, Harry Potter in The Harry Potter Series, and Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre. It’s appealing for us to see people doing amazing things through hard work, perseverance, and sheer will.

Psychologically-speaking when we watch others beat the odds it gives us the sense that those successes could be our fate as well. This belief in achieving the impossible is incredibly powerful.

Therefore, one of the major draws of March Madness is the potential of gargantuan upsets by Cinderella teams that on paper shouldn’t be able to play with the blue bloods of college basketball. The teams are seeded 1 to 16 in each region and so there are many opportunities for upsets. The 1 plays the 16, the 2 plays the 15 and so on. Often the masses gravitate toward rooting for the underdogs in the tournament and rejoice when they upset the apple cart, i.e., the ‘natural order of things’. The back stories to the teams that have provided the biggest upsets in tournament history are heart-warming and often enthrall the nation.

The 1983 NCAA men’s tournament provided one of the biggest upsets in championship history. North Carolina State, coached by the late Jim Valvano, was a 6 seed and not expected to win many games in the Big Dance. However, they advanced all the way to the championship game and on a last second dunk beat heavily favored Houston. The win was improbable and prior to the tournament hardly anyone would have given NC State even a sliver of hope that they could be national champions. Additionally, over the last several decades there have been several major upsets in the Big Dance and it’s clearly part of what makes March Madness magical and ‘must-see’ TV; perhaps the best reality show on TV.

Recruiting Take-Away: 

For potential candidates and clients it’s appealing and important to tell your ‘story’ passionately–whether you are going out on your own and starting a new gig or staying put and trying to put a charge into the business and move the needle. Find ways to creatively tell potential customers about your journey and why it’s compelling. People crave inspiration and stories of perseverance. 

Analytics & Numbers Don’t Always Win the Day

The Stats Pros at FiveThirtyEight Crunch the Numbers to Predict Every Game in the Big Dance

In today’s society we have become obsessed with numbers, statistics, and predictive modeling. The popular website fivethirtyeight.com embodies our fascination with numbers and counts and predicts just about everything. Prior the the first game being played FiveThirtyEight will present the entire bracket with the percentage chance of each team to win every game they could potentially play.

This is cool to check out and I guess helps odds makers in Las Vegas and potential suckers (i.e., gamblers) that will throw down cold hard cash on the games hoping for a big score. But as we have already established there are many upsets throughout the tourney and all the fancy statistics in the world can’t predict all of them correctly. Number crunching cannot account for things like will, drive, momentum, anxiety, concentration, or stress. Additionally, no stats can offset or an off shooting night where your team shoots 2-25 on 3’s and your opponent makes 17-20. Statistics only go so far.

Recruiting Take-Away

In order to help align companies with the right hire at the right time (or i.e., foster successful ‘marriages’), in recruiting, often folks must go beyond doing Boolean searches and keyword matching on resumes and job descriptions. Sometimes the numbers can be misleading and don’t tell us the entire story. 

Unpredictability is Attractive

Danny Manning and the ‘Miracles’ Won the Championship in 1988 as an 8 Seed

Another primary reason the Big Dance is so popular is that it offers people the chance to break away from the mundane parts of life and follow an event (lasting 3 weeks) that isn’t easy to predict. The sense that the title is up for grabs and those that embrace a little creativity can gain the edge is a hallmark of the tournament and is often embraced by the American public.

It’s also the case that often people become passionate about teams they may have known little about prior to the tournament. This can be inspiring and is super-charged by the inundation of social media outlets where people can express their thoughts and feelings about the games in real-time. Life can get pretty boring when it’s easy to predict outcomes before they happen. The magic of March Madness is in fact – the Madness.

Recruiting Take-Away

The world of recruiting is often unpredictable, fluid, and subject to major shifts in methods that work on a dime. As staffing, recruiter and sourcing expert Dean Da Costa often says he is, “Finding what cannot be found.” Effective recruiters and sourcers use their creativity to see potential and ‘fit’ where others may overlook great candidates. Also, superior recruiters embrace the fickleness of recruiting and are motivated to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

We Like to be Part of a Tribe

Kentucky forward Anthony Davis (23) and Kansas center Jeff Withey (5) jump for the opening tip-off during the first half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 2, 2012, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Finally, another key reason why March Madness is one of the top 5 events in American culture every year is the fact that it allows people to feel connected to each other. There are so many things in our society, culture, and politics that divide us, but sports can be a venue that truly brings us together. The Big Dance offers at least 3 opportunities for encouraging social connection among people we know and some we don’t:

  • Alumni Pride: there’s a sense of pride that goes along with following one’s Alma mater in the NCAA Tournament – By following teams for 4 months people can be part of the entire journey and feel connected to something bigger than themselves
  • Filling out Brackets, Gambling, and Friendly Wagers: a major part March Madness is competing with your friends, colleagues, and others in your orbit–seeing who can pick the most winners for all the games
  • Get Behind Underdogs and/or Teams that Endure You: Whether in the virtual world through social media, or in-person at your local tavern, or by those in attendance at the games there’s a tendency for people to rally behind underdogs and other teams that have a good story that people can identify with; a common purpose is established

There’s value in being a part of something bigger and more ‘grand’ than yourself and March Madness offers a forum that fosters social connection.

Recruiting Take-Away

Successful recruiters take great pride in having close connections with their placements and clients and actively growing their ‘tribe’. Recruiting is a people business and keeping in contact with tribe members is a key part of their daily lives. Also, HR professionals should constantly be thinking of ways to bring individuals and groups together so cohesiveness and a common purpose can be achieved. What’s more, recruiters shouldn’t lose site of the fact that they need to work at meeting people ‘where they are’. 

In Summary

Whether or not you follow March Madness closely (or at all) it’s undeniable that it is a gigantic sporting event that gains the nation’s attention for three weeks and can provide many useful lessons for recruiters, sourcers, and HR professionals.