What Basketball, Movies, and Taxes have in Common

Part of my “Article of the Month” series in 2000

Wow, what a month! March/April (you’ll see later why they’re lumped for me) has always been one of my favorites, not for any holiday, but for the large doses of entertainment that are piped through the airways. And on top of the usual, this year’s carried the curious theme of professionalism versus amateurism.

For starters, we saw the conclusion of the 61st NCAA Basketball Championship. For any conscientious sports fan, March Madness (despite the tourney’s name, the event isn’t concluded until early April) is the quintessential sporting event to follow. And not just for the dedicated sports fan, March Madness can be a great way for the uninitiated to get their fill of amateur basketball in just one month. You see, that’s what the tournament really represents. It’s the amateur world’s finest basketball condensed into about 21 days of highly potent, concentrated athleticism.

So much so that the professional broadcast world has long been keen on the fact that amateur sports is just as enjoyable as professional. In fact, according to DetroitNews.com, CBS paid $1.73 billion for an eight-year broadcast contract which expires in 2002. An unnamed rival network is willing to offer at least $4 billion over 10 years. Clearly, amateur basketball is very big professional money.

And you can see it in the game, which in itself is kind of ambiguous now. You have the pre-game show with Dick Enberg, recapping the seasons of the respective teams with all the sweeping sentiment of Hollywood. Then there’s the pre-game interviews with coaches, players, players’ parents, etc. Don’t forget about the post-game interviews, which get cameras into the defeated faces of coaches almost immediately after a game’s been lost. All of this is outside of “the game” itself.

Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Enberg’s narration and capsule reviews of the season is by far my favorite part of the tournament, outside of game time. They have always been rather genuine looks into the players and their lives, and represent solid journalism, albeit a tad melodramatic. But let’s face it, amateur basketball has always had that certain vitality and dramatic flare.

Still the question arises, “what does this sort of money do to the game?” How can we be sure that the spirit of the game, as it were, is not being tainted. Indeed, the game’s purity was the topic of discussion during the Final Four (the last four teams left in the tournament) in an unprecedented open forum. A moderator from CBS posed questions to several representatives of the game, including Shane Battier of the Duke Blue Devils and a few coaches.

Far from professional precision, the outcome of an amateur basketball game is far from certain even under the most certain of odds. And that’s precisely what attracts illegal gambling to the sport. Where there is demand, there is a market. Naturally following is the rise of corruption within college recruiting, as schools increase the pressure on coaches to win ball games.

All of this has not left the game unscathed. This year’s championship game brought CBS the lowest prime-time title game rating ever. It would appear that the game itself has been changed. With the encroachment of big money into the sport (in essence professionalism), the pure amateurism is lost forever.

As in the world of athletics, the art world too is a place where professionalism threatens purity. In this case independent film, that method of making motion pictures “unshackled” from major movie studios and demographic concerns, focus groups, distribution channels, and the like. Historically, the drawback to this kind of purity was actually getting the public to view your independent movie. But that is changing now.

With last year’s phenom The Blair Witch Project, the gap between big-budget Hollywood and small-town indie directors was suddenly bridged. It seems that indie films have been moving closer and closer to Hollywood professionalism with bigger budgets and quality effects (seePi). Meanwhile, Hollywood in turn has taken keen interest in the more underground popularity of independent film in response to the recent cynical backlash toward traditional mainstream filmmaking. In fact, most production houses now have “independent” branches (oxymoron?). The result is finally more accessible underground films, but at the same time those films are no longer “underground,” are they? The lines are blurring.

Such examples of more mainstream art film projects are “The Shooting Gallery,” a joint venture with Loews Theaters, a major theater chain owned by Sony, and Yahoo!, Inc. Then there’s the Sci-Fi cable channel’s show “Exposure,” a weekly expose on up-and-coming indie filmmakers and their work. While these avenues are great for the artform to gain notoriety, the very medium that expands its familiarity threatens to tame it. What a delicate balancing act.

Like I said, this month has been a great one and usually is every year. And would you believe on top of all that, there’s still taxes due?! I’m exhuasted.

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