When I casually strolled into the Corner Office bar in Orange County, Calif. before noon on March 20, I can’t say I was really expecting to see many people. As anticipated, I was greeted at the door by four very friendly bartenders and a whopping total of three other patrons. Unsure if this was a result of March Madness apathy or the fact that most adults are at work at 11 a.m., I sat down and ordered some food. I glanced around the bar to find the Harvard-Cincinnati game was playing on exactly none of the 17 televisions mounted to the walls. Dressed in a Harvard jersey and hat, I received some inquisitive stares as I flagged down one of the bartenders and asked if she could possibly put the Harvard game on. Figuring this might be a long and lonely two hours, I settled in to watch Harvard take an early lead.
Before long, however, people began trickling in. Many were dressed in nice clothes and I assumed they were professionals on lunch break who had come to watch the game, but a fair amount of regulars surrounded me before long as well. I sat in a corner and attempted to observe the patrons and listen to their conversations without coming across as a complete creep and noticed most customers were not even watching the screens. The only mention of the games at all came when one patron remarked on the Ohio State-Dayton upset as the game ended. My self-conscious silence was broken when one man, Dave, noticed I was watching the televisions and proceeded to ask me who my team was. At my response he exclaimed, “Wait, but they’re not in the tournament, are they? Oh, they’re winning? Well, would you look at that.” Clearly, I felt, the amount of fanship and team spirit in this county was not high.
My luck began to change as a regular named Billy, who I later found out had apparently disappeared for a month and reappeared that day acting as though nothing had happened, sat down next to me and inquired as to who exactly I was. As we chatted it naturally came up that he was curious from where I was visiting—when I told him, others overheard and the news traveled along the bar. All of a sudden there was a much greater interest in both myself and the game. One man came up to tell me, “Harvard’s got a solid team this year,” but he had put money on Cincinnati, and (with no hard feelings, naturally) he was therefore hoping we would lose.
Another young woman then stepped in on my behalf, saying she’d bet on Harvard and was eager to cheer them to victory. No one seemed to have strong personal allegiance to any team, however; the concern and attention to March Madness as a whole was solely for monetary reasons. Regardless, as a result of this new interest in the Harvard-Cincinnati game, those who were previously uninterested chose sides and nearly everyone, at least about thirty people or so, began watching and cheering for one team or the other.
At this point only five minutes remained on the clock. The game was close. Before long it was showing on screens other than the one in my corner, and shouts and clapping could be heard reverberating around the room whenever anything interesting happened on screen.
What had begun as a boring and uninteresting game to most and a very awkward experience for me turned into a massive, establishment-wide competition and a way to make fast friends as the possibility of an upset became clear to all. As the last seconds of the game ticked away and Harvard’s victory was secured, those on the losing side congenially wished those on the winning side luck for the rest of the tournament, though they took care to mention they though Harvard would bomb out against Michigan State. Take what you can get, I suppose.
Attention shifted away from the televisions and back to the food and drinks, as people discussed their brackets or looked around for the next game ending soon in order to catch only the last five minutes and not have to spend two hours watching an entire game. Feeling oddly as though the game had never happened, I took my leave, and Billy wished me a great life.
As I left, I walked by a new arrival and heard him ask the person next to him why so many people were there, and what on earth was “March Madness.”