CHAPEL HILL The spicy spinach-and-artichoke dip at Top of the Hill never disappoints, but in the insane days of March Madness, patrons crowd this establishment to eat up the atmosphere.
With the mens ACC tournament running Thursday through Sunday, and the first round of NCAA tournament play coming March 19, the college basketball season winds up during a three-week week period so frenzied that many hard-core fans save their money and vacation time for it. And even marginal followers find themselves streaming games at their cubicles while still on the clock.
For the purist, the place to be is in the arena where their team is playing: this year, again, the Greensboro Coliseum. But at tipoff, UNC, Duke and N.C. State devotees are happy just to be surrounded by fans who share their team allegiance, their love for the game, their tendency to scream when the right side scores.
This is sort of Ground Zero for Tar Heel fans, said Guy Murphy, general manager at Top of the Hill, which overlooks that UNC fan mecca, Franklin Street. When the first ACC game starts at noon Thursday, all eight TVs in the restaurant and seven more in the downstairs bar will be tuned to ESPN.
Murphy, who has been at the restaurant for nearly 15 years, will have a definite stake in the games, and not just because his wife is a UNC grad. If Carolina loses in the single-elimination tournament, the next two weeks will still be among the busiest of his year as crowds come to see who will take the ACC crown and come back the next week to watch NCAA games.
If Carolina beats this years odds, wins its 17th ACC tournament and, with some fairy-godmother-style magic, gets to the NCAA Final Four, as it has done a dozen times in the past 40 years, Murphys job suddenly will become more complicated.
Nearly all his 135 staffers will be put to work, and hell bring in private security to manage crowds. If UNC gets into the NCAA finals, people likely will do as they did in 2009, camping outside the restaurant to get tickets guaranteeing them a seat and a table from which to view the game.
Games provide escapism
In the home of Duke, UNC and N.C. State, ranked second, third and fourth in the conference, respectively, watching basketball can cause peoples blood pressure to soar and their productivity to plummet.
Theyre BIRGing, said Deborah Stroman, who teaches the economics of sports at UNCs Department of Exercise and Sport Science. BIRG is the tested social-psychology phenomenon of Basking in the Reflected Glory of a winning team.
When your team wins, you start taking on the thought that youre part of the team, and now youre nice to everybody and you want to treat people well.
Likewise, if their team starts losing, some people become unapproachable. Theyre CORFing, or Cutting off Reflected Failure.
Stroman, who was a starting point guard and captain for the University of Virginia womens basketball team in the early 1980s, doesnt get as emotionally caught up in sports now that shes on the academic side of them.
She notes that while the tournaments wont bring about the economic downfall of corporate America, they do contribute to millions of hours of diminished productivity. Thats true both for the workers who watch the games instead of doing their jobs, and for those who continue to work, but find their Internet speed dragged down by the growing numbers of spectators who stream the games at their desks.
As an academic, she said, You start putting things in perspective. (The tournament) is not going to solve poverty. Its not going to change hunger or crime or any of the more important things in life.
It really is just a game.
What March Madness does provide, Stroman said, is Escapism. People are having a rough day, or a demanding week, and they just want to escape for a while. Sports provides that.
Less productive vs. happy
Alison Fragale, a professor in the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at UNC, likens March Madness to the Christmas season, or the days before a long holiday weekend, or any time in an employees life when theyre planning a major event such as a wedding or a childs birthday.
All these things make people less productive, but they also make people feel good, Fragale said. People are in a good mood, and maybe they work fewer hours, but theyre more friendly in the hallway, maybe theyre more likely to help out a coworker. In the hours theyre working, maybe theyre more productive because theyre happier.
And there are all kinds of distractions that tempt people to stray from their duties, Fragale said. If you sit at a computer and have access to the Internet, there are all kinds of ways you can use your time.
Dartmouth-educated Fragale didnt have a college team to pull for until she came to work at UNC in 2004 and got season tickets to see the Tar Heels play. That season, the team won the national championship and Fragale was hooked.
She admits her theories on the benefits of March Madness, including one that suggests employers could schedule game-watching time to promote a sense of community in the workplace, may not be well grounded in science.
Im biased, she acknowledged. As a basketball fan, I dont want to do away with March Madness at work.
Kim Moser of Raleigh avoids the temptation. Every year, the N.C. State graduate schedules vacation time around the ACC tournament. Her father was a professor at NCSU and she grew up going to all the home games with him and her brothers when the team played on campus at Reynolds Coliseum.
I remember feeling Reynolds was just this really magical place, she said, where her heroes accomplished amazing feats. She says their names with reverence: Jim Valvano, Rodney Monroe, Chris Corchiani.
Mosers dad would pick her up early from school on the Friday of the ACC tournament if NCSU was playing, and they would go watch the Wolfpack in action.
I think it shaped me as a person, she said. It made me a loyal person.
Unlike some fans who spend hours filling in tournament brackets for office pools an unsanctioned but also unprosecuted form of gambling Moser has never wagered cash on a tournament game.
She wouldnt bet against NCSU, even when the team is having an off year, So I do owe a few people some lunches.
Moser couldnt work it out this year to go to Greensboro, but shell take time off to watch the game with her dad, now retired, as she has for years. Its their thing, and she cherishes that time with him.
The Friday of the ACC tournament, I will be gone about lunch time, and you wont see me again until Monday.
It wears you down
At 10 years old, Julian Kings son has just gotten interested in basketball and he sometimes watches games with his father, an ardent Duke fan. King grew up in Durham and cant remember a time when he didnt pull for Duke. He lives in Raleigh now and works from home running a website.
All Duke games are fun to watch, King said, especially those against rivals UNC and Miami. But theres nothing as exciting as March Madness.
Its really an energizing event, King said. The anticipating, the waiting, and then the games are very intense. If your team loses, youre out, so everything is on the line.
Because of that intensity, King said, watching one tournament game after another can be exhausting.
It wears you down, he said.
The only cure for March Madness is the crowning of a champion.
To me, King said, its always a little sad when its over. I cant wait for it to start up again.