Story telling lessons from March Madness “Cinderella” teams

I’ll admit it. We’re in that little March Madness lull before Final 4, and I’m suffering from withdrawal. My family has a very competitive bracket challenge, and this year it’s not even close – I’m crushing it. But now I can’t give anyone a hard time for four more days!

One of the best storylines of this year has been Syracuse making it this far in the tournament. They were a #10 seed. For those of you who don’t particularly care for college basketball, let me put this in perspective. It’s the first time a 10th seed has made it to the Final 4 in the tournament’s history!

The other big story was #2 seed Michigan State dropping in the first round to #15 seed Middle Tennessee.

I do know one person who predicted the Syracuse run, but if there’s anyone claiming to have seen Middle Tennessee coming, I have two questions:

  1. Sure buddy, where’s the proof?
  2. Can you pick me up a lottery ticket on your way over?

Last year wasn’t quite as fun. My mom won our pool by auto-filling her bracket. I still maintain this is cheating; her win has an asterisk in my mind.

But the predictable years are anomalies. That’s one of the things that makes college basketball so entertaining and gripping. The Cinderella runs are stories of persistence and triumph against all odds. What makes them so compelling?

  1. We can all identify with the underdog.
    All of us struggle – whether it’s at work, or with a personal problem, the feeling of being challenged by seemingly insurmountable odds is almost universal. This feeling is embedded in our cultural myths: the American Dream is an underdog story. With hard work and persistence, we can all prevail.
  2. They give us new heroes.
    Northern Iowa surprised everyone winning their first game against Texas, and in the 2nd round found themselves in a tight game against Texas A&M. They put 12 points on the board in the last 30 seconds, and took the game into double overtime – my heart’s racing just thinking about it!
    They ended up losing, but the next day when their star, Paul Jesperson, was asked to be on ESPN Radio he took the call between classes. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be answering questions about your crushed dreams so soon after that loss.
    “‘Ninety-nine percent of pro athletes never would have come on the radio show after a loss like Sunday,’ ESPN host Ryan Russillo said. ‘The fact that you could come on is a credit to you and to the school.'”
    You might not have heard Jesperson’s name if they hadn’t had such a dramatic few games against their Texas rivals. Now he’s being held up as an impressive athlete and an example of good sportsmanship.
  3. They’re polarizing.
    If Jesperson is a hero, the entire Syracuse team could be cast as villains.
    For a team that’s done remarkably well, people really hate Syracuse. There are plenty of reasons to argue that they shouldn’t have qualified for the tournament, and coach Jim Boheim doesn’t help matters. He has a history of publicly lambasting his own players, recently calling out Tyler Roberson stating, “if I had anyone else he wouldn’t play for a minute.”
    Their villain status has only emboldened their fans, who are starting to embrace their role:
    “They want us to be party-ruining villains, so let’s be villains.”

SYRACUSE, NY - FEBRUARY 01:  A Syracuse Orange fans hold up sign of Justin Bieber (not pictured) during ESPN College GameDay prior to the game between the Duke Blue Devils and the Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome on February 1, 2014 in Syracuse, New York.  (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
March Madness is popular not just because of the athletic talent. Millions of people tune in because of the drama. From before the bracket is released to cutting down the nets, we’re gripped by the stories that the tournament brings us. The Cinderella runs are the most compelling of all – even if you don’t have a team playing, you’ll always have someone to root for.

As content marketers, we’d be lucky to inspire that much passion in our audience!