Management Lessons from March Madness

The past two weekends, many of us have gotten caught up in March Madness, the annual college basketball tournament that sees 68 teams compete in a single-game elimination format. This weekend, it culminates in the final four, with two semi-finals tonight, and the championship game on Monday night.

As I’m wont to do, I find lessons from sports that we can all implement in our work, no matter what type of organization. I’m going to share a few from the tournament here:

Your Product Needs to Be Well-Understood
While a segment of people who follow the tournament are fans of college basketball itself (or of specific teams), for many, the tournament itself is the draw. As a product, it is well defined, and its facets well understood by the audience. Casual fans are surely familiar with the alliterative names for different rounds – Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four. The opportunity for people to latch on to teams (especially lower-seeded underdogs) creates greater viewer engagement, especially when many of the key players turn over on a year-to-year basis. And, of course, who doesn’t look forward to the One Shining Moment video that ends CBS’ coverage of the tournament every year?

The tournament is a model in being clear about what it’s providing for its customers.

Listen to Your Customers
One of the key things in any organization is to keep your customers – or constituents – happy.

The NCAA has proceeded cautiously in expanding – or changing the key aspects – of the tournament. Expansion from 65 teams was rumoured a few years back, and in the end, the organizers merely expanded to 68, which added 3 additional play-in games, not a large new tier or round. This change was not substantial enough to alter the tournament, and organizers and fans were rewarded in 2011 when play-in school VCU made it all the way to the final four.

A recent change that did not go over well was replacing Luther Vandross’ popular version of One Shining Moment with a new rendition by Jennifer Hudson. That lasted all of one year; CBS brought back the Vandross version, much to the relief of many (including myself).

Audience/Customer Engagement Matters
Most fans – casual or serious – participate in March Madness pools, creating a greater engagement and association than would otherwise exist. I would venture that this interactive part keeps many people interested when the teams and/or games themselves otherwise would not – if they still have a chance at winning their pool.

(On that note, go Ohio State!)

Understand Your Value Proposition
One of the most successful coaches, and controversial ones, is John Calipari of Kentucky. Calipari has taken two schools (UMass and Memphis) to the final four, but later had both appearances vacated due to various sanctions (in both cases, he had moved on before they arose). Now at Kentucky, he has built a powerhouse in large part by mastering his value proposition for recruits – that they play for one year (until they’re eligible for the NBA Draft), and he will focus on preparing them for the next level. This approach is controversial, but given Coach Cal’s success in attracting top recruits who become top draft picks, and winning games, also undeniably successful.


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