Certain sporting events are must see television.  They’re looked forward to, prognosticated about, ritualized and analyzed.  What are these events?  To some it may be opening day of the baseball season.  Not for me, I’m not that interested in Blue Jays-Indians in what basically represents watching the first 10 steps of a marathon.  Here’s my list of the top five sporting events.

In compiling this list I focused on events that are the most fun to watch, but also have something extra.  I eliminated anything that’s regular season.  With the exception of the NFL, the seasons are too long and mean too little.  I mean come on; half of the NHL and NBA make the post-season.  HALF! In an eighty-two game season.  We need eighty-two games to eliminate half the teams? At least in the MLB only eight teams make the tournament.  Pardon me, I’ve seemed to rant off track.  Anyway, here’s the list of my top five favorite sporting events.

I think I have to start with an honorable mention.  The Kentucky Derby.  I hemmed and hawed about whether to include this, but I think it’s better left just out.  But let me say, I love me some Mint Juleps, comically large floppy hats, gambling and one hundred and ten pound dudes on horses.

5. The Stanley Cup Finals:  I know a lot of people hate on hockey, but no sport is better in it’s final round than hockey.  Can you deny the glory of the playoff beard? Hockey mullet? General toothlessness? I know I can’t.  And I haven’t even begun to discuss the game’s overall speed, agility, grace and skill which is on display in the playoffs.  I know hockey gets a bad rap for it’s culture of goonish behavior, but the fights and cheap shots seem to disappear when the cup is on the line.  What’s left is still every bit as physical, but without the distraction of fighting.  Plus there may not be a better image than watching the cup be skated after a clinching game.  The Stanley Cup Finals each year displays the best that hockey has to offer, a rugged, physical, fast, graceful game which is one of the best to watch.

4. The Masters: There’s nothing quite like Sunday at Augusta.  Maybe it’s because around the time of Master’s weekend the northeast is still mired in slowly melting snow and general malaise, but there’s something spiritual about ‘Amen Corner’ in HD.  It’s almost emotional watching the leaders cross Hogan Bridge on Sunday, or the eventual winner tap in on eighteen in front of that crowd.  Watching the Sunday back nine charges can be one of the most exciting couple of hours in sports.  No. I’m not joking.  A Master’s Sunday with the last few groups in contention and someone coming from thunder deep in the field to make a run at the lead is indescribably fun.  But hey it’s still golf, which is one of the harder sports to watch on TV.  I mean, not many people are tuning into the Hartford Open (sorry Dad), so it’s not going to rank higher than our next event.

3. The Super Bowl: Let’s be honest, the Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event in America today.  Why? Because it’s not a sporting event, it’s a cultural event.  The NFL has skillfully taken their product and made it a must see event, whether for the halftime show, commercials (though not for long if the commercials continue their downward spiral - enough with the E*Trade Baby!), or for the game itself.  111 Million viewers watched this year’s Super Bowl.  That many people haven’t agreed on something in this country since we all rallied against Crystal Pepsi. One of my favorite parts is watching whichever member of the hall of fame walk the Lombardi Trophy up to podium past the winning team.  The look on their faces is sublime. The only drawback to the Super Bowl is that the game can be woefully uninteresting.  Recently the games have been fantastic, but who was really paying attention for the entire 48-21 smack down the Bucs laid on the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII?  Jon Gruden even tuned out.  Overall though, combining the game itself with it’s cultural relevance, the Super Bowl had to make it to the list. But does the Super Bowl’s reach extend beyond our borders?  The next entry to our list has limited appeal in America, but is THE EVENT for the world.

2. The World Cup: Don’t hate on soccer.  Alright, you can hate a little bit – but disrespected as it is in America, it is a beautiful game. There’s a reason that it’s the most popular game in the world.  Sure, that popularity has a lot to do with the fact that all you need to play it is something round and your feet, but it also is due to the game’s history, grace and skill.  Such a sport, played at it’s highest level, over a month of non stop action is nothing less than dynamite.  Who out there didn’t leap out of their chair when Landon Donovan put away that goal in extra time against Algeria?  Liar, you know you did. How about when Van Bronckhorst drove home that upper ninety thunderbolt, bulging the back of the old onion bag from thirty-six and a half meters and gave the Netherlands the lead against Uruguay?  That was unbelievable!  By the way, for those of you who aren’t sure what I just said, here’s a translation: ‘How about when a very good soccer player shot the ball very hard from a long way away and scored a goal in the top corner of the net?’  It’s not important, anyway, I also love the way the World Cup evokes such a sense of pride.  Not often do you see entire countries close their doors so that all of its members can watch a sporting event.  But you do during the World Cup.  The World Cup is the world’s biggest sporting event and one of it’s most exciting.

1. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament:  The brackets, the upsets, the Cinderellas – there’s little that compares to the ‘Big Dance.’  It’s also the only tournament that is as good at the beginning, if not better, than it is at the end.  Just look at the first weekend, how many of those games featured unbelievable finishes (way to go Butler, blowing up my bracket)?  It’s a feature unique to this tournament.  Furthermore, for me the NCAA tournament represents the best of what sports can be.  64 teams (I refuse to acknowledge play-in – NOT FIRST ROUND – games) from different worlds, it seems, competing for the same crown. In how many sports can UNC Asheville and the other little sisters of the poor play with the blue bloods like Duke.  I mean, get blown out by the blue bloods, but they’re on the court together – there’s always a chance.  That chance is what makes the tournament so good.  We all love David and Goliath stories, but in today’s world when does David actually get the job done? In March that’s when.  In March David takes the form of Butler, George Mason (not this year) and Morehead State.  David is the one who comes out of no where and has three million people tearing up their brackets and tasting the bitter nectar of broken dreams.  David, the brackets, the upsets, the phenomenal games – they all come together to create the best sporting event of the year.

There’s a common theme in each of my entries above.  To me each of these rises above what sports is today.  So many of the stories we hear about in sports is about how much money a star athlete is demanding, or what a player’s recent DWI is going to do to their endorsement deals.  I understand why we talk about those things, but in times like these doesn’t a story about Albert Pujols wanting thirty million dollars a year instead of twenty-eight million just get old?  I’ve got no stomach for it anymore.  I yearn for a time when sport was sport and I could watch it be played at its highest level without feeling like I’m watching guys who don’t care about the game.  I know that that’s an overstatement and maybe I’m naive for even thinking that such a time existed, but it’s hard to watch and not consider the money these guys make and how all too often it’s all about that money.  I desperately seek for a moment of pure sporting joy, a love of the game if nothing else.

That’s why I chose the five that I did.  There’s little more moving than watching Lord Stanley’s Cup being passed from teammate to teammate.  I damn near shed a tear when Ray Bourque finally had his opportunity (I absolutely shed a tear, or lots of tears). Who didn’t love watching Drew Brees interact with his son after Super Bowl XLIV?  Watching the World Cup Champions be given their trophy is like watching a country’s worth of emotion explode in an instant.  And that’s because it is. The World Cup is about love of country and love of sport.  Does it get clouded with drama at times? Sure, but in the end it’s the raw emotion of pride and joy (just like Stevie-Ray sang).  The NCAA Tournament is the best of each of these.  It’s the same pride and emotion, but with amateurs. Sure, some of these guys are headed to the NBA, but most are headed to a law firm or a doctor’s office.  Most play ball because they love the game, not a paycheck or an endorsement deal.  They play for Morehead State and are thrilled to make the tournament, happy to be on television. That’s why when they upset Louisville they’re the happiest they’ve ever been.  Because that’s what it’s about, the pure joy of playing, the uncorrupted love of sport, love of competition.  Isn’t that what sports should be about?  Isn’t that what we all want?