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Mandel: Nothing brings a split country together like March Madness. Enjoy it

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You can find more of The Athletic’s coverage of the men’s NCAA Tournament here and women’s NCAA Tournament here. Follow live coverage of the 2024 men’s NCAA Tournament first round

On Wednesday, I boarded a flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas for the explicit purpose of watching college basketball.

Not to attend an actual basketball game, mind you. Those flights were headed to Omaha, Neb., and Charlotte, N.C. In my case, I am spending several hundred dollars for the privilege of sitting (or standing) in various sportsbooks and viewing parties to watch NCAA Tournament games that are readily available on the television in my living room.

If the inflated hotel prices and $250 tickets for reserved seating are any indication, hundreds of thousands of other sports fans are doing the same.

Betting is presumably the draw for many of them, but these days you don’t need to fly to Vegas to place a sports bet. Alcohol consumption may be another, but that, too, is readily available for far less than a plane ticket.

The allure of Vegas for March Madness is much the same as it is for millions of people who fill out brackets and cheer their heads off for schools and players they’d never heard of two hours earlier. It’s because the NCAA Tournament is one our country’s increasingly rare communal experiences.

In this polarizing time, when even the most innocuous subject can become cause for outrage, there’s still one thing folks from all parts of the country enjoy equally: rooting for the underdog. There aren’t two sides to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson knocking off No. 1 seed Purdue (unless you’re a Purdue fan). There is no political agenda behind Saint Peter’s upsetting Kentucky.

It is nothing but pure, sheer joy to spend two hours watching a team of complete unknowns who play most of their games in front of 800 people take on a bunch of future pros from a power conference and come out the victor. Or when, with a team’s season on the line, 19-year-old sophomores drain a 3-point buzzer-beater to etch themselves into “One Shining Moment” lore for the rest of their lives.

No other sporting event manages to deliver so many indelible moments year after year after year. Sure, there are “upsets” in pro sports. But the New York Giants beating the New England Patriots in a Super Bowl is ultimately one team full of multimillionaires beating another. Not exactly Oral Roberts beating Ohio State.

College football has had its share of Cinderella moments, like Appalachian State stunning Michigan or Boise State toppling Oklahoma. But when it comes to the biggest games at the end of the season, it’s almost always Alabama, Georgia or Michigan beating another Alabama, Georgia or Michigan.

The NBA has LeBron, Giannis and Jokić. But it doesn’t have Sister Jean.

But most of all, in all of these sports, there are no teams that the entire country gets behind. People don’t suddenly morph into Philadelphia Eagles fans once the NFL playoffs begin. But if you’ve ever been in an arena where the No. 13 seed is still hanging around in the second half, then you know well the buzz of 20,000 people suddenly turning into rabid Furman fans for the rest of the game.

The only thing to compare it to is events like the World Cup or the Olympics, when a U.S. team or athlete is competing. But even the women’s national soccer team has become politicized, and the men mostly cause collective angst for being so mediocre. And chances are you don’t even remember the names of most of the gold medalists from the last Olympics.

Whereas every college basketball fan remembers forever the likes of Bryce Drew, Tyus Edney and Kris Jenkins.

Which brings me back to Vegas. Though it doesn’t have to be Vegas. It could be your local Buffalo Wild Wings. Or your neighborhood dive bar. Or a close enough sports bar to sneak away to on your lunch break.

March Madness is the one sporting event best enjoyed in the company of others. Riding the roller coaster of scoring droughts and momentum swings in a room full of other captivated viewers as your Final Four pick tries to survive a first-round scare. High-fiving random people around you if Vermont sinks a 3-pointer to go up by nine on Duke.

Or racing around the room screaming and hugging strangers if some kid from Long Beach State lays one up at the buzzer to take down Arizona.

Enjoy the flight — wherever it takes you.

Get ready for March Madness:

(Photo: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)





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