It’s the big dance, the time of year when every sports fan channels their inner dorm-dweller, auspiciously fills out five or 10 brackets and tunes into the college basketball’s great gladiator match.
I’m talking about March Madness, of course, which reaches its epic conclusion with the Final Four this weekend and the crowning National Championship game on Monday.
This year, social media has taken March Madness to whole new heights, letting viewers experience the joy and heartbreak of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament like never before.
Social media has rapidly evolved from a medium to share sports-related memes and witty tweets aimed at individual teams into a unique way for the everyday fan to enjoy the sport they love. While TV viewership for the tournament remains robust, fans are turning to the phones in their pockets to immerse themselves in every game even more.
Admittedly, the swarm of March Madness in social media is hard to avoid for those who are routinely checking their feeds. Simply logging into Facebook this time of year lands you smack dab in the middle of a barrage of college-themed profile pictures, competitive status updates and officially sanctioned ones to “let your friends know you’re watching the game.”
But for those who relish this special annual event in sports, the more the merrier.
How’s your bracket doing?
For those who live outside the insane bubble of adrenaline-fueled sports mania that is March Madness, I’ll quickly break it down for you. Simply put, this is a single-elimination tournament of the 68 best ranked teams in the NCAA.
Although this seems like a rather run-of-the-mill, if not banal format for a sports championship, brilliant branding and marketing by the NCAA over the past few decades have turned it into one of the most anticipated sports events of the year.
Even the individual rounds have become synonymous with branded terms, including the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four, each escalating in excitement as the final championship game approaches.
The most obvious branding associated with the NCAA tournament, however, is bracketology – the art of playing soothsayer and correctly predicting the outcome of every game.
This next-to-impossible feat can earn far more than bragging rights with your work pals. In years past, Warren Buffett has offered the jaw-dropping prize of one billion (with a b) dollars to the lucky son-of-a-gun who somehow pegged the outcome of every match. Cash prizes are still offered for those who soothsayed the perfect bracket – or got damn close.
ESPN’s Tournament Challenge app is an excellent way to keep track of your brackets, as well as your friends brackets. Entry through ESPN’s app allows you to create up to 10 brackets to compete for $10,000 and a trip to Hawaii.
The social aspect gives this bracket method the edge for some, allowing users to follow their own brackets in a point-based system with their friends. Celebrity brackets are in the chart as well.
Needless to say, there’s a bit more than just school pride fueling the fan frenzy around the tourney. Although nobody ever really expects to have a shot at the ultimate bracket prize, the competitive nature of fans’ involvement in the tournament helps set March Madness apart from the dozens of other sporting events vying for their attention. Naturally, the big social media players are chomping at the bit to facilitate.
Live streaming takes the court
The NCAA is no dummy when it comes to where fans are trending. With traditional television viewership for regular season college basketball in decline and the advent of streaming live sports to your phone, computer or tablet, social media presence and online watchability have stepped up in recent years.
Through NCAA’s March Madness Live website and app, college basketball fans who are signed up with virtually any cable provider can watch every game on-the-go for free.
This app is the best way for the die-hard fan to experience the ups and downs of the tournament without having to camp out in front of their TVs. March Madness Live is supported on all things Apple, Android, Amazon, Roku and Windows.
Viewership via the March Madness Live app broke new ground in 2015, citing 80.7 million live streams and 17.8 million hours of live video consumption over the tournament, according to USA Today. We’re still awaiting figures for this year.
On the social side, March Madness Live has a so-called “Social Arena” that pits the opinions of all the major media sites in the same chat. Fans can log into their Facebook, Twitter or Google+ accounts and contribute to the cross-platform fury of competitive opinions before, during and after each game.
For even less traditional television consumers, such as Sling customers, you won’t have access to every game, but with the right channels, you can watch most of the big games without having to purchase a cable package.
Staying social during the Madness
Every year, social media progresses further into a near-necessity for entertainment. Starting a couple of years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find a television show without a hashtag or some sort of social story sync to get fans involved.
Now, sports fans have come to want the same thing. Even fans who watch the games on TV yearn for the social interaction that can only be brought on by the likes of Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook.
Facebook is a prime example of this evolution. I challenge you to open up Facebook in a new tab and avoid the March Madness talk, which will only increase during this weekend’s Final Four and during Monday’s National Championship game.
It’s effortless on Facebook to not only show your own support for your team, but (somewhat annoyingly) update your status with the score as often as you’d like.
But beyond the superficial “showing team pride” aspect of social media, how exactly are the big players changing the landscape of March Madness?
YouTube: The benefits of YouTube for March Madness viewing are fairly obvious. Even the most die-hard fan, and I’m talking John-McClane level, can’t possibly watch every single play of every single game. YouTube is the ultimate resource to catch up on highlights from any of your favorite sports networks. In fact, since last year March Madness has had its own YouTube channel to keep basketball fans tuned it at all times to the big plays they may have missed.
Facebook: Facebook recently rolled out a temporary profile picture that lets you slap the logo of your favorite team across the bottom. I touched on Facebook’s “let your friends know you’re watching” statuses, which aren’t exclusive to March Madness. These can include the scores and time of the game, making it the perfect avenue for some friendly smack talk. On top of all of that, Facebook secretly added a basketball minigame to its Messenger app to help the clock tick faster during those halftime breaks.
Snapchat: The disappearing photo network has become a surprising heavy hitter in the field of live streaming. This is most likely because Snapchat offers fans the chance to go beyond what the camera crew sees on the court, and can often make you feel like you’re actually part of the action yourself. This month, Snapchat signed a deal with Turner Sports, the host of much of the tournament in partnership with CBS. As a part of this deal, Snapchat offered 14 live stories during March Madness.
Twitter: Not exactly reinventing the wheel, but March Madness has frequently climbed the list of trending topics. Twitter savvy fans can enjoy seeing the opinions of the people the follow flood in in real time as the game happens, which can feel like the digital version of a full living room. If you’re a sports fan, it’s never a bad idea to watch the game with one eye on the Twitter feed. And because Twitter is all about hashtag emojis these days, #MarchMadness and #FinalFour each have their own.
There are plenty of ways to stay socially plugged into one of sport’s most exciting tournaments this year, even if you don’t have the time to watch every game. From monitoring your Twitter feed to brand new to innovations like Snapchat’s live stories, social media continues to not only enhance, but revolutionize the way we consume entertainment.
And if you honestly couldn’t care less about college basketball, you only have to wait it out until after Monday before your feeds resume their regularly scheduled programming.
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