By Timothy J. Mullaney Say what you want about yourself, but I know what I'll be doing this weekend: I'm watching the Final Four, the pinnacle of the college basketball season, when a good chunk of American media and maledom explodes into a nearly orgiastic, Super Bowl-esque celebration of all things hoop. Let me explain a little about my mania: My idea for an invitation to a Final Four party began with pictures of Stalin, Castro, and Duke University Coach Mike Krzyzewski under the headline (inspired by singer Sinead O'Connor's famous dustup with the Pope) "Fight the Real Enemy." You guessed it: I went to the University of Maryland, Duke's rival in Saturday's national semifinals. And if you know anything about the Terps, you know I have suffered. I know this is nuts. But it's my insanity.
All of which brings me to FinalFour.net, the much-promoted official Web site of March Madness, which really ought to be a lot better. The idea is to give people a place to wallow in the cultural and commercial moment of the NCAA tournament, for which the CBS television network pays billions for broadcast rights. In an ideal world, this production of Quokka Sports, in alliance with the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. and with some help from CBS, would be a showcase for truly first-rate sportswriting, along with interactive entertainment. Instead, it's a site that looks terrible, presents content that's either stale or tossed-off, and generally isn't as interesting or compelling a way to steal a few pre-tournament hours at work as are broadly focused sports sites ESPN.com or CNNSI.com.
FALLING FLAT. Let's start with the looks, which are ugly on the one hand and barely legible on the other. No one should think that America is demanding computer screens full of gray type on black backgrounds, or vice versa, which are amply in evidence on FinalFour.net. Plus, the layout of the site has the jarring effect of type appearing to hover in three dimensions above background pictures. The Final Four is hardly some hipster niche event. A more mainstream look would be more sensitive to the now-squinting audience the games actually have. Quokka and the NCAA have designed a site that looks a lot like Quokka.com, the hub of the publicly traded company's network of sports sites. But Quokka.com, for my money, is ugly, too.
The level of sportswriting on FinalFour.net is frankly mediocre. The site is dominated by wire-service copy, and even when it tries to present interesting voices from featured writers, it mostly falls flat. Take the runup to the Duke-Maryland game, the winner of which will meet the victor of Mar. 31's Arizona-Michigan State game for the national championship on Apr. 2. Six of the 10 stories that turn up about it are Associated Press copy, while the others are from Scripps Howard and the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. But AP's mission is to convey the basics: who, what, when, where, why, and how. What it does poorly, or not at all, is convey the style and elan of the game itself, the passion of the fans, the spectacle of the scene -- in short, what the Final Four is about. People in newspapers use AP to cover out-of-town games -- i.e., games their local audience doesn't care much about.
To do better, you need a higher level of talent than Quokka and the NCAA seem to have recruited for this job. Certainly you do when you're up against the reporters and commentators of ESPN and Sports Illustrated. If FinalFour.net was able to make deals with small or midsize papers like the News & Observer to use their copy, they should have worked harder to get bigger papers represented, either by buying syndicated copy or by inducing more writing stars to moonlight for them. One problem: A lot of big-paper stars already moonlight for ESPN.
TOO POLITE. Nowhere is this defect clearer than when you evaluate FinalFour's unimpressive roster of commentators. Instead of the lively writers on CNNSI, who are both professional communicators and trained to call things as they see them, you get mostly a crew of ex-coaches and ex-jocks who can't write and whose basic instinct is to say safe things about coaches and players they know. Player commentaries are even worse. Did you know that Michigan State University guard Charlie Bell is in Minneapolis to win this weekend? Gee. I needed FinalFour to tell me that. CNNSI also makes much better use of chat and mailbag features that let its writers interact with readers. It's fun, and that's all this is really about.
Now, having said I like almost nothing about FinalFour.net, I loved one thing -- its tournament store. Instead of just sticking to the big teams, FinalFour's store brings you gear from all 64 teams that made it to this year's Big Dance. Got to give it up for someone who bothers to stock Monmouth Hawks gear, even if Duke did send this first-round opponent back to New Jersey almost as soon as that team got off the plane in North Carolina. Plus, the site lets you customize your own gear for dozens of different schools. And you can sign up for mailings that will let you enter the drawing for tickets to next year's Final Four. What's curious, though, is that you can't simply cut through the rigamarole and fill out the form, and give your credit-card number, all online. Why bother with the extra step?
At bottom, FinalFour.net is kind of cute -- and it pays about equal attention to the men's and women's tournaments, both of which wind up this weekend. But the site should have spent more on quality journalism to make it less a captive of its NCAA sponsors -- and more candid and interesting than the every-team-is-wonderful, every-coach-a-genius coachspeak it dishes out. Mullaney writes the Clicks & Misses column for BusinessWeek e.biz