The annual NCAA national basketball championship known as March Madness starts this week, bringing with it the excitement lost during its unprecedented cancellation last year. 

However, while data from 2019 and 2020 were remarkably consistent in terms of general interest in following the tournament, this year marks a surprising decline. 

Data suggests that part of this drop in general interest may be a hangover from last year’s cancellation.

One-third (33%) of the general population is less interested in the tournament than last year. This may, of course, demonstrate a larger trend of sidelining major sports competitions as a whole, in light of the stresses of the pandemic. 

An even larger group (39%) of the general population is less interested in sports competitions overall. Again, this may be a result of the pandemic: fans largely not being allowed in the stands, frustration with games being rescheduled or canceled, players ruled ineligible, and so forth. 

Similar to the drop in interest in watching March Madness, interest in filling out brackets and participating in pools this year has also dipped.

It seems that people just aren’t getting as into the madness this year as in prior years. Perhaps news like perennial powerhouse Duke potentially getting pulled from the tournament, following their withdrawal from the ACC championship over a positive COVID test, have soured the taste of the Big Dance. 

More impactful, however, is that the dip in interest in the tournament parallels that of NCAA basketball as a whole. 

Despite a notable rise across 2019, interest in NCAA men’s basketball has slid over the past two years, pushing it back to 2016 levels. This suggests a larger trend, beyond pandemic pressures, that are stymying growth of the collegiate league. 

 A Look at the Fans

Unsurprisingly, among those that are following the Big Dance, viewers are overwhelmingly more likely to be men, and live in cities. 

More surprisingly, interest in the tournament declines among the youngest viewers as compared to older generations, especially Gen Xers, who show the greatest interest.

Perhaps Gen Zers are less interested because a portion haven’t reached college age yet, and therefore haven’t yet determined who their “team” is. Regardless, this data may cast light on the periodic argument that performance across March Madness can drive undergraduate enrollment numbers

Speaking of Enrollment Numbers

While Cinderella stories, such as George Mason University’s 2006 wild Final Four run, or Florida Gulf Coast’s 2013 stunning run to the Sweet 16, can occasionally drive an uptick in applications to undergraduate programs (generally due to their significantly lower national recognition), they tend to be far outliers to the norm. Despite this, almost two-thirds (63%) of people think a school’s success in sports is at least somewhat impactful to student enrollment. 

And if we take a look at that question across age brackets, we see something fascinating.

Gen Zers, despite being the group least interested in following March Madness this year, is the demographic that most believes that sports success has a significant impact on student enrollment. 

But perception is not always reality.  When we zoom out, we see that the vast majority of the U.S. population did not consider sports success when they applied to or decided to attend colleges or universities. 

And when we zoom in, while Gen Z does seem more likely to factor in sports success in their decisions as to where to apply for school, it’s not nearly in the same numbers that backup the outsized importance administrators place on March Madness and other big sports successes. 

So, while 51% of Gen Zers think sports has a significant impact on enrollment, only 22% of them were actually influenced by sports success in their personal decisions. And the association between sports and enrollment across age only declines as age increases. 

This data may imply that emphasizing the importance of March Madness performance as a sort of annual school commercial may represent flawed logic that isn’t backed by sentiment among viewers and new potential college applicants. 

Of course, the NCAA and the downstream effects of a solid performance over the course of March Madness is a complex and sometimes controversial system, the direct impact of which on enrollment numbers may never be fully understood. Regardless, if the NCAA wants to jolt its fanbase into longer-term growth, it will have to find a way to start drawing in its youngest potential consumers in larger numbers.