It seems that once March rolls around, there’s no avoiding March Madness (the NCAA college basketball tournament), whether you’re a diehard sports fan or not. Chances are you’ve at least been suckered into watching a game and/or filling out a bracket – even if you’re just picking teams based on their mascots or how much you like their colors. For others, this is the pinnacle of all fandom and sports watching, ranking right up there with the Super Bowl as the best event in sports.
So why is that? What makes the “March Madness experience” so sticky? Why do so many people get jazzed for the tournament even if they don’t have an alma mater to root for? Or why do we find ourselves sneaking peeks at scores during work or even employing the notorious “Boss Button” to hide the livestream game we’re watching on the job?
As service designers, myself included, we often forget that sports can be the ultimate service design case study. Reason being, outside of the singular event – the game, or the tournament – the fan experience extends way beyond that singular moment; sports can reach beyond the need for entertainment and tap into a person’s emotional needs and motivations, like the need for being part of a bigger community or showing pride in hometown teams.
So why is it that we feel heavily invested in certain teams – maybe for years – even if we don’t have any personal connection to them? It’s due to a deep, maybe unexplainable, connection to the team. This felt connection is a result of thoughtful and methodical service and experience design, which is truly an empathetic and human-centered design approach. It’s crafted so well that it has sustained a billion-dollar industry.
And since we’re in the midst of a great sports experience – March Madness – here’s why I think the tournament unites sports and service design into the best constructed fan experience out in the sports arena today.
1. It’s unifying
The majority of people fundamentally want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and March Madness does just that – tap into people’s need for social connectivity. It is a great way to bring individuals together and collectively root for something. It also fosters an environment to cheer on your favorite team with friends or pit you against your rivals in friendly competition.
2. It’s easy to understand
The bracket is pretty straightforward; we start with 64 teams (excluding the play-in round), they play each other and whoever wins goes on to the next round, and so on until the championship game. Since the design of the bracket is simple it creates a “low barrier of entry” for people to get started consuming and interacting with it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a diehard fan watching all the games or just a casual observer – all that matters once the tourney tips off is the score of the game and who advances after each round.
3. It’s accessible for all types of fans
Whether your bracket is based on years of sports knowledge and history of teams, or it’s based purely on guesses, you’re just as qualified to participate. In fact, diehard fans hate to admit it, but in many cases casual fans have about the same chance to get it right. As we’ve already seen with this year’s rounds, there are so many long-shot upsets that really anything is possible – it’s just a matter of who guessed this year’s Cinderella team. This inclusive approach makes it enjoyable to all types of fans.
4. It’s consumable
Unlike some other tournaments and seasons, March Madness is here before you know it and then promptly over a few weeks later. It doesn’t require constant attention which helps prevent oversaturation and lack of interest. Meaning enthusiasm can stay high throughout the tournament. By packaging this product in consumable spurts over a relatively manageable time span, people can invest in it.
5. It encourages allegiances and fandom
March Madness gives you a way to be a part of college sports well beyond your years in school. It also helps you foster undiscovered—and sometimes seemingly random—allegiances. Sometimes it’s just as simple as our sibling went to a school so we have a soft spot for a team; or we can’t stand a team because a neighbor we weren’t too fond of was also a fan. Whatever the reason, the tournament allows us to pick teams purely based on emotions just as much as picking based on logic.
6. It fosters empathy
I more often than not, find myself rooting for the underdog team; the one with a .0001% shot at winning the game. Every year there seems to be at least one huge upset, if not a couple, which keeps the tournament interesting. Take this year for example, a long shot upset happened when Middle Tennessee (a 15-seed team) beat Michigan State (a 2-seed team). But why is this so fun to watch and root for, even if your bracket is in shambles after? One big reason is that we can see ourselves in this team. We’ve all been confronted with uphill battles, where we’re not expected to succeed but with passion and grit, we do. This is a key component of service design, is that you want your audience to deeply empathize and relate personally to your experience and March Madness helps encourages that feeling.
We can learn a lot by looking to sports, and more specifically March Madness, for ideas of how to create engaging experiences. By designing an experience that is inclusive and fosters community, while maintaining a simple and approachable design is a winning formula.