On this day in 1985, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament began, the first time the tournament featured 64 teams. The tournament originated in 1939, but at that time only eight teams competed. The birth of what has become known as “March Madness” began with the start of the 1985 tournament. Fans across the nation feasted on a smorgasbord of first-round games, visually tracking the progress of the tournament using a 64-team bracket.
The moniker “March Madness” originated as a term to describe high school basketball. Henry V. Porter, an official for the Illinois High School Association, first used it to promote his state’s basketball tournament in 1939. With the gradual increase of teams in the annual NCAA college basketball tournament along with its growing popularity, March Madness graduated to the college ranks, becoming the operative term for the annual tournament. In 2010 the NCAA paid $17.2 million to trademark the term (1).
Besides the large number of teams in the tournament and ESPN’s saturation coverage of the games, the other element that made March Madness a cultural phenomenon was the bracket. The bracket concept for tracking single-elimination contests is not new — it may go as far back as medieval jousting tournaments. Beginning with the large slate of teams in the 1985 tournament, fans across the nation could participate in office pools, filling out their brackets and tracking the progress of their predictions in each round. According to the American Gaming Association, $10.4 billion was spent on tournament betting in 2017 with approximately 40 million people filling out 70 million brackets (2).
In fact, brackets have become so popular that the concept has moved beyond just basketball and sports. In 2009, Mark Reiter and Richard Sandomir published a book called The Final Four of Everything where they used the bracket form to judge everything from “SAT Success Strategies” to “Songs by the Grateful Dead.”
Reiter and Sandomir explain in the introduction to their book that a bracket is much more than just a list. Unlike a list that ranks things from best to worst, the bracket presents “discrete one-on-one matchups” and allows “the two to rub together and create friction to determine the superior players” (3).
The following are some examples that show the variety of topics that can be found in The Final Four of Everything:
Most American Superhero, Disney Animated Films, Fears and Phobias, National Parks, Texas Sayings, Politically Correct Terms, Artisan Cheeses, Board Games, Presidential Speeches, Fatherly Advice, Acronyms, Fortune Cookies
Today’s Challenge: Build A Better Bracket
What are some sample categories that might make good topics for a bracket? Brainstorm some possible categories; then, select one and break it into 64, 32, or 16 parts. Draw a bracket on a piece of paper and fill in your list of competitors along with a title. Fill in the bracket based on who you think would win each competition. For example, if your bracket were “Songs by The Beatles,” which song would you pick in the showdown between “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You”? Write your explanation for the victor in at least six of the matchups on your bracket. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: A bracket is a more dynamic way of understanding personal preferences. The practice of parsing people, places, and things into discrete one-on-one matchups works because it’s simple and the face-off happens right in front of you – in real time.In that sense, a bracket invests your opinions with a narrative of how you decided something. -Mark Reiter
3-Reiter, Mark and Richard Sandomir (editors). The Final Four of Everything. New York: Simon & Schuster 2009.