March Madness sweeping through Hamden

By Logan Reardon

March Madness is upon us, which means brackets, food and drinks are the three most important things for a few weeks – both nationally and across Hamden.

The first NCAA men’s basketball tournament tipped off in 1939, but it has evolved into a bigger spectacle than its founder – Harold Olsen – ever could have imagined.

The tournament has expanded from eight teams to 68 over the past 80 years. The “First Four” play-in games begin Tuesday and Wednesday night, followed by the first round on Thursday and Friday. With 16 games on both Thursday and Friday, the games are essentially non-stop from noon until after midnight. The second round is played over the weekend before teams finally get a break until the following Thursday.

Throughout the country, billions of dollars in bets are placed annually during March Madness. This year, Americans bet a combined $8.5 billion – yes, billion – on the tournament, according to a report from the American Gaming Association.

Photo via Ernest Adams/Creative Commons

Photo via Ernest Adams/Creative Commons

In Hamden, local bars must prepare for the uptick in business as the madness ensues.

Side Street Bar & Grill, a Hamden hotspot known for its chicken wings and beer, is one business that adjusts in March.

“We have to make sure we have enough staff members to accomodate for the people that come,” said Sylvia Pinon, a Side Street employee. “We sometimes double all the servers and we have people come in earlier. We have to make sure that’s OK with our staff members first and that they have availability.”

Part of the battle is having extra staffers, but the bar also needs to be sure it has enough food to serve all the extra mouths. In 2015, The Food Network named chicken wings as one of the seven essential foods for March Madness viewing parties.

Side Street is notorious for its wings, which makes it a prime spot in March.

“As far as food goes, we do inventory every Monday, so we make sure we have enough wings and bleu cheese, because that’s what we’re known for,” Pinon said. “We make sure we have our prep guys every morning making things fresh for us. We just try to do our best. There’s only so much you can prepare.”

While you could easily just watch the games at home, many enjoy going to a bar like Side Street throughout the first weekend.

“I just enjoy the social feel during the games because as you know some of them can get very intense and nail-biters,” Quinnipiac junior Matthew Skiba said. “When (the games are) close, the environment of the bars gets up there and I like the energy that it brings.

“I enjoy the energy more than if I was just sitting on my couch at home.”

Skiba is a huge fan of March Madness and is easy to find at Side Street during the tournament.

“I like how it’s make-or-break for everyone, especially when I have competitions or am making bets with friends about certain games,” he said. “There’s also a bunch of upsets in this first weekend, the first 32 games, and that’s exhilarating.”

The upsets are a key part of the tournament. It’s a single-game elimination tournament, meaning one bad game can end a team’s season.

The make-or-break aspect of the tournament makes every game a must-watch. In an anonymous poll sent to Quinnipiac students, 27 of 50 respondents said they have watched tournament games on their laptop during class and eight said they’ve even skipped class to watch the games.

In the same poll, 35 of 50 respondents said they made a bracket this year, and of those 35 brackets, there were 11 different champions picked.

Skiba believes Duke, led by freshman phenom Zion Williamson, is the favorite to win. Ten of the 35 brackets in the poll also picked Duke, which was the highest percentage of any team picked.

Regardless of who wins, it’s clear that March is predicated on madness. Between chaos at bars like Side Street to students eagerly watching games during class lectures, the NCAA Tournament has everyone’s attention for the next few weeks.