CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- 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 men's 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, University of North Carolina, Duke and North Carolina 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 year's 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, Murphy's job suddenly will become more complicated. Nearly all his 135 staffers will be put to work, and he'll 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.
In the home of Duke, UNC and N.C. State, ranked second, third and fourth in the conference, respectively, watching basketball can cause people's blood pressure to soar and their productivity to plummet.
"They're BIRGing," said Deborah Stroman, who teaches the economics of sports at UNC's 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 you're part of the team, and now you're nice to everybody and you want to treat people well."
Likewise, if their team starts losing, some people become unapproachable. They're CORFing, or Cutting off Reflected Failure.
Stroman, who was a starting point guard and captain for the University of Virginia women's basketball team in the early 1980s, doesn't get as emotionally caught up in sports now that she's on the academic side of them. She notes that while the tournaments won't bring about the economic downfall of corporate America, they do contribute to millions of hours of diminished productivity. That's 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. It's 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."
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 employee's life when they're planning a major event such as a wedding or a child's 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 they're more friendly in the hallway, maybe they're more likely to help out a coworker. In the hours they're working, maybe they're more productive because they're happier."
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.
"I'm biased," she acknowledged. "As a basketball fan, I don't want to do away with March Madness at work."