For the 29th time, the annual NCAA Division I Basketball Championship -- that is, "the tournament" -- has arrived in Kansas City. With thousands upon thousands of fans expected, the March Madness is spilling out of the Sprint Center and clogging the downtown streets. Commentator Victor Wishna tries to make sense of the maddening crowd in this month's edition of A Fan's Notes.
Only moments ago, the first of four NCAA tournament games tipped off downtown at the Sprint Center. You probably know this, and sports fan or not, you likely fall into one of two groups: you’re already there (or want to be), or else, you are avoiding downtown like, I don’t know, a plague
Instead of frogs and lice, Kansas City is being overrun by Jayhawks and Wildcats, and also Badgers and even Tar Heels, among others. The number of fans swarming around the Power & Light District right now are expected to eclipse the estimated 130,000 who just flooded through a few days ago for the Big 12 Tournament. In fact, this weekend caps a two-week stretch that will have seen four college basketball tournaments clog up K.C.—a total of 66 games featuring 58 teams from all over the country.
But here’s the thing: many, perhaps most of these fans, won’t even get to see the games. At least, not inside the arena, which, after all, can only hold about 20,000 at a time.
There are plenty of reasons why an attraction like the NCAA tournament is such an attraction for fans. There’s the local angle: KU and K-State in one day! There’s the sense of history—Kansas City has hosted more NCAA tournament games than any other city—as well as history-in-the-making: KU has the chance to meet up Sunday with its nemesis North Carolina and old coach Roy Williams. Little La Salle University, 1954 national champs, looms as a possible Cinderella this year when they meet K-State. Sorry, Wildcats—I’m goin’ with the Explorers!
Those are great “storylines,” the kind the media loves to carve out and serve up. And, of course, a lot of folks just show up because they’re, you know, thirsty. Power & Light bases their official crowd estimates on the number of plastic cups used.
But you don’t put up with ridiculous traffic, overpriced parking, and even a possible spring snowstorm just to have a $7 beer a hundred feet from a “good story” you don’t have a ticket to. So really, what is the deal?
Perhaps, the answer is best expressed in a song. It just so happens that one of the other toughest-tickets-in-town right now is at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, where a reinvented revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel has just been extended. It may not have been their intention, but the duo famous for “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” also wrote one of the most internationally popular sports anthems of all time. Carousel’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” has been adopted by soccer and rugby clubs across Europe and as far as Japan, where fans sing it before and after every game. In Liverpool, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is even emblazoned across the football stadium’s front gates.
Why? Because it illustrates what it means to be a sports fan—it’s a bond that you always carry with you. Because being a fan is all about being part of something bigger, the connection needn’t be relegated to the inside of the arena, or even a sports bar. It explains why it can be enjoyed from the comforts of home, wherever home may be, without ever feeling…alone. But it also explains the compulsion to gather together in one place: To know there are thousands who feel the same way.
I’m not saying that justifies the snarled traffic or some of the fraternity-party antics sure to ensue. But if not sports, think of a passion you share with others, and maybe you’ll begin to understand why this is a special occasion.
And, hey, if you leave right now, you can still be part of the crowd.
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor, author, and sports fan. He lives in Leawood. You can hear “A Fan’s Notes” monthly on Up to Date.