March Madness 2013: Kansas Basketball Turns An Entire Red State Blue


After countless hours of searching, weeks of forcing hordes of grad students to pour through mountains of data, hundreds of interviews with experts, and at least a couple hours worth of searching through the unending multitudes of Facebook feeds — I have found it, the only modern map known to exist revealing the much disbelieved, but truly blue nature Kansas. And just when you thought you would never see this conservative hotbed turn blue . . .

This map from the Kansas City Star of Kansas and Michigan fans, broken down by county, proves that in March, Kansas might be the bluest state in the union. Just ignore those grey spots in the middle — nobody lives there (or worse, they're rabid Kansas State fans).

Once again, it seems that almost the entire state is plagued by that most insidious and  contagious of annual social ailments: the dreaded, March Madness. While you might have negative associations with plagues, in Kansas, they might just be what holds the state together.

As a proudly infected resident of Lawrence, Kansas and KU graduate, I have seen firsthand what the Madness brings to our fair state — a sense of community unlike any other and a chance for our local economy to flourish. Interestingly enough, even in solid KU territory, with Wichita State making it to the Elite 8 for the first time in nearly 30 years, the virulence of March Madness has almost doubled.

Lawrence (home of KU, located in Douglas county about 35 miles from both urban Kansas City and Topeka) for most of the year is the only place in the state considered solidly blue. But, for about three weeks, this often bleak, mostly empty and largely conservative state might as well take an extended holiday as "fly over country" transforms into one of the most exciting places in the nation — everyone here agrees, it's all about Kansas basketball.

Frankly, I cannot think of a place where the urban and rural divide is more obvious than in Kansas. The largest counties (by population) are, unsurprisingly, urban or suburban, and, despite still being generally conservative, tend to have quite different views than other residents on the policies that should be adopted or shunned. Even so, there are very few such urban or suburban communities, creating a serious dichotomy between the numerous wealthy suburbanites — often considered the support system for the rest of the state — and the largely, if fewer in number still extremely important, rural residents who often make a living through agriculture.

March, and Kansas basketball, dissolve this divide (even the Speaker of the Kansas House puts appropriate decorations on his podium for successful teams!). Go anywhere and ask, "How do you feel about this year's NCAA tournament?" and everybody has an opinion. This year, it's more than just KU getting all the attention. Last weekend I visited a Lawrence drug store, only to find my pharmacist clad in a KU gear (complete with Jayhawk face paint) asking "did you catch the Wichita State game too last night?"

Eric Bledsoe, a manager at a local natural food store and former manager at an area chain supermarket, said "[while working at the supermarket] we did some of our best business during the tournament." Bledsoe believes that "people want to come together," even while he felt nervous about the outcome of the tournament.

This is the great thing about sports, even in a state politically divided, and known only for wheat production and The Wizard of Oz, we have a place and time to come together outside of natural disasters and election season where we can feel proud. It builds our community and reminds us that we are all still "on the same team." It doesn't really matter that Nate Silver gives both teams a very slim chance of making the championship (yes, he apparently predicts NCAA tournament chances too), what matters is that we can still come together have pride in our state, if only for lack of a better way to express it than "Rock Chalk!"

Just to make it clear — my completely biased, against all odds, un-sports educated opinion for this tournament's outcome: Kansas Jayhawk over Wichita State in the national championship. And, just in case you were curious what it's like in Lawrence when the Jayhawks inevitably win in the final four . . .