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Mandel: Nothing brings a divided country together like March Madness. Take advantage

You can find more Athleticism’s NCAA men’s tournament coverage here and women’s NCAA tournament here. Follow live coverage of the first round of the 2024 Men’s NCAA Tournament

On Wednesday, I took a flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas for the express purpose of watching college basketball.

Not to watch a real basketball game, mind you. These flights were headed to Omaha, Neb., and Charlotte, North Carolina. In my case, I spend several hundred dollars for the privilege of sitting (or standing) at various sportsbooks and watch parties to watch the NCAA Tournament games that are readily available on the site . television in my living room.

If inflated hotel prices and $250 tickets for reserved seats are anything to go by, hundreds of thousands of other sports fans are doing the same.

Betting is probably the main attraction at many of them, but these days you don’t need to fly to Las Vegas to place a sports bet. Drinking alcohol may be another, but that too is easily accessible for much less than a plane ticket.

The allure of Vegas for March Madness is about the same as it is for the millions of people who fill out brackets and cheer for schools and players they had never heard of two hours earlier. That’s because the NCAA Tournament is one of the increasingly rare community experiences in our country.

In this time of polarization, when even the most innocuous topic can become a cause for outrage, there is still one thing that people from all parts of the country value equally: supporting the oppressed. There are no two sides to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson beating No. 1 seed Purdue (unless you’re a Purdue fan). There is no political agenda behind Kentucky’s upset in St. Peter.

It’s just pure joy to spend two hours watching a team of complete strangers who play most of their games in front of 800 people take on a group of future pros from a power conference and come out on top. Or when, with a team’s season on the line, 19-year-old sophomores drain a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to etch themselves into “One Shining Moment” history for the rest of their lives.

No other sporting event manages to deliver so many indelible moments year after year. Of course, there are “upheavals” in professional sports. But the New York Giants beating the New England Patriots in a Super Bowl is ultimately a team full of multimillionaires beating another. Not exactly Oral Roberts beating state of ohio.

College football has had its share of Cinderella moments, like stunning Appalachian State Michigan Or Boise State overthrow Oklahoma. But when it comes to the biggest end-of-season games, it’s almost always Alabama, Georgia or Michigan beating another Alabama, Georgia or Michigan.

THE NBA has LeBron, Giannis and Jokić. But it didn’t Sister Jean.

But above all, in all these sports, there is no team supported by the entire country. People don’t suddenly turn into Philadelphia Eagles fans once the NFL the playoffs begin. But if you’ve ever been in an arena where the No. 13 seed is still trailing in the second half, then you’re familiar with the buzz of 20,000 people suddenly turning into rabid Furman fans for the rest of the match.

The only thing we can compare it to are events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games, when an American team or athlete participates in a competition. But even the women’s national soccer team has become politicized, and the men mainly generate collective angst because of their mediocrity. And chances are you don’t even remember the names of most of the gold medalists from the last Olympics.

While all college basketball fans will forever remember Bryce Drew, Tyus Edney and Kris Jenkins.

Which brings me back to Vegas. Even if it’s not necessarily Vegas. It could be your local Buffalo Wild Wings. Or your neighborhood dive bar. Or a sports bar close enough to escape during your lunch break.

March Madness is the sporting event best enjoyed in the company of others. Ride the roller coaster of scoring droughts and swings of momentum in a room full of other captivated viewers as your Final Four pick attempts to survive a first-round scare. Give random people around you a high-five if Vermont makes a 3-pointer to go up nine on Duke.

Or running around the room screaming and hugging strangers if a kid from Long Beach State lays one down at the buzzer to take down Arizona.

Enjoy the flight, wherever it takes you.

Get ready for March Madness:

(Photo: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

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