March Madness: Where are the Cinderella stories?

When No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast University upset No. 2 seed Georgetown University on March 22, it became everyone’s favorite underdog for the 2013 Men’s NCAA tournament. With FGCU’s loss to the University of Florida on March 29, its Cinderella run ended. For seven days, the Eagles were the darlings of March Madness.

Every year, millions watch the tournament and fill out brackets, and every year there is a collective anticipation of which team will deliver the most exciting upsets. The thing about underdogs, though, is that with each ensuing victory – if in fact they are lucky enough to string together multiple wins – they become less and less exciting.

What makes a March Madness upset so exciting is the unpredictable outcome. There’s more amusement found in the anticipation of an upset, in trying to figure out which No. 12 seed is going to beat which No. 5 seed, than in the actual victories. The most titillating moments of March Madness are the victories by teams that seemingly come out of nowhere. Once a team pulls off one victory, it becomes a known commodity and therefore less interesting.

How many people had heard of Florida Gulf Coast before March 22? Heading into the tournament’s first weekend, the Eagles were little more than a filler team. Their matchup against Georgetown was a formality and a foregone conclusion, as nearly all No. 15 seed against No. 2 seed games are. But when FGCU pulled off its 10-point victory, putting on quite a show in the process, it became the headliner of the tournament.

It is an interesting phenomenon that after an underdog’s first win, the dynamics shift. In the mind of most everyone watching the following game, the underdog becomes the favorite to win. The majority of March Madness fans were pulling for the Hoyas on the 22nd; just 2.3 percent of ESPN Tournament Challenge users picked FGCU over Georgetown. But after the upset, I’m betting support for FGCU amounted to far greater than that 2.3 percent. For their subsequent matchups against San Diego State and Florida, the Eagles were the team everyone was pulling for, the Cinderella story that everyone wanted to take part in.

I always wonder what it’s like to be the team playing a Cinderella like FGCU. What was it like for San Diego State and Florida, knowing that they were playing the roles of the villains in FGCU’s story? The games FGCU played in the round of 32 and Sweet 16 had an element to them that separated them from the rest of the tournament. There was a narrative to them, watching this No. 15 seed try to make history – which it did, becoming the first No. 15 seed to make it past the first weekend.

It must have been strange for Florida, knowing that by defeating FGCU in its game on March 29, it was ending one of the most entertaining stories of the tournament, a disappointment to millions across the country.

Which is why the zeitgeist of an underdog team is so interesting. It creates fans out of nowhere, increasing its fan base exponentially with one victory. Florida’s popularity was far higher before the tournament and it will be far higher after its conclusion – but from March 22 to 29, no team was more popular than FGCU.

I wonder, then, why it seems that Wichita State has not been given the same level of attention. A No. 9 seed reaching the Final Four, while not quite as historic as FGCU’s Sweet 16 run, is similarly impressive: only four other teams seeded nine or lower have reached the final weekend. Maybe I’m imagining it, but Wichita State just hasn’t captured hearts the way FGCU did.

It’s as if the collective March Madness fandom only has the capacity for one Cinderella story per year. One team that rises from the depths of the double-digit seeds to pull off an unexpected win and make it out of obscurity for a weekend, or a week if they’re lucky. Unfortunately for most and likely including FGCU, the fame is fleeting.