By: Sam Dillistin
It’s that time of year again, college basketball ‘fans’ are popping up left and right, no-name schools are being talked about on ESPN, and productivity at work is beginning to sharply decline. Even the casual sports fan who has not watched a game all year might fill out at least one NCAA Tournament bracket. Their picks may also be based on a school’s colors or the ridiculous name of a player (looking at you, Scoochie Smith).
Yet, no matter how little knowledge a fan has of NCAA basketball from the regular season, they will participate in filling out a March Madness bracket. Why is that? Well, there are several reasons, a few of which operate in conjunction with one another.
Firstly, avoiding the NCAA tournament is impossible if you own a television. As soon as the two play-in games end and the 64 team bracket is set, there will be college basketball on TV nonstop. With games shown on ESPN, ESPN2, CBS, truTV, and TNT there will never be a shortage of NCAA basketball to view from now until April 4th.
Amazingly enough, the NCAA tournament was not always this popular.
In 1939 the tournament only featured eight teams and was fairly predictable in terms of winners and losers, drawing minimal interest from American viewers. The tournament expanded slowly throughout the next three decades and was dominated in the 60’s and 70’s by John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins. As other writers have pointed out in the past, a live product loses value if you know which team will be winning. After the Indiana State vs. Michigan State 1979 championship game featuring Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the American audience slowly grew to love March Madness and its unpredictable nature.
What else to watch?
With 64 teams competing for the highest honor in NCAA basketball and a general lull in the sports calendar, March Madness is so damn easy to watch.
The only choices for other live sports to view during March are the NBA, NHL and NASCAR regular seasons. Myself and many others won’t be watching the NBA until the Conference Finals, NASCAR will only be viewed if there are eye-popping crashes or insanely-tight finishes, and NHL coverage can be difficult to come across.
Even with the NFL Draft quickly approaching, I feel suffocated by the sheer number of mock drafts and prospect coverage. When the hand-size of a quarterback prospect is the most interesting story on ESPN, you know the month is March.
Note: Arkansas QB Brandon Allen actually hired a masseuse to GROW HIS HANDS before the NFL Combine, knowing his small hands would affect overall draft position, that is insane.
Now, back to basketball.
ESPN Glorifies Bracketology
Another key factor pushing sports fans to fill out NCAA Tournament brackets is ESPN. Every year the company treats March Madness like a popular new trend that everybody should be a part of by promoting the heck out of it. They email anybody with an ESPN account a link to fill out a bracket, actively fantasize the idea of completing a perfect bracket, and popularize those fans who are closest. ESPN is providing each and every fan with the sliver of hope that their bracket may just be perfect.
In 2015, ESPN estimated that 70 million March Madness brackets would be filled out with almost 12 million being submitted through ESPN. Astoundingly, only 40 million Americans were responsible for submitting the grand total of 70 million brackets. The statistics show that if you are to participate in March Madness, you are likely fill out at least more than one bracket.
Your odds of completing a perfect bracket currently sit at one in 9.2 quintillion (you read that right) which means that the odds of actually becoming a professional basketball player or getting struck by lightning are higher. To say those odds are not in the favor of those who fill out brackets would be lowballing it. Filling out a perfect March Madness bracket is an all but impossible task that Americans continue to believe they can achieve.
Every so often, someone will scratch the surface of submitting a potentially perfect bracket, such was the case last year with ESPN user Malaquias4394. Darren Rovell notes that Malaquias4394 was perfect after 35 games, shattering last year’s record of 25 by a considerable margin.
Now, you might be thinking the random user who picked 35 games correctly must have watched at least a few big college basketball games last year. There is no way that someone could have possibly just picked that many games correctly at random. Well, that’s pretty much what happened. In an interview with Darren Rovell, the mystery man admitted that he had not watched an entire game from start to finish all year long.
Could it be that Malaquias4394 is simply selling himself short and actually put a great deal of effort into filling out his brackets? I wouldn’t bet on it. After correctly selecting 35 games in a row, this basketball savant predicted that Duke would beat Kansas 58-0 in the championship game. This goes to show that his previous picks were more or less done completely blind with almost no thought put into them.
Bracketology, a term created by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, has spawned jobs solely dedicated to the NCAA tournament. Lunardi for example releases an annual breakdown of the tournament’s 64 team field and who he believes deserves to play for the national championship. Almost any sports website is likely to create a breakdown of “March Madness for dummies” explaining the easiest ways to succeed in creating a bracket. The buzz of Bracketology never ends.
Show Me the Money
Not only are jobs created as a result of March Madness brackets, but enormous sums of money are also risked. Several websites claim that an estimated $3 billion are gambled annually on the tournament.
The most amazing part of the multi-billion dollar event known as March Madness is that the greatest success rarely equates to basketball knowledge. A 12-year-old named Sam Holtz was also wildly successful in filling out a bracket last year, finishing tied in the competition with ESPN user Malaquias4394. Neither of these tournament champions claim to have watched a single regular season game last season.
People are gambling huge sums of money on a 3-week sporting event, those who are willing to risk the most must have at least basic knowledge of NCAA basketball. It would be incredibly unwise to bet money on an event that you are clueless about. But the most successful bracket created last year was done by a man who didn’t even watch a full game during the regular season. This is not concrete fact, but I find it doubtful that ESPN user Malaquias4394 invested any money into the tournament considering the fact he created two brackets 15 minutes before the online deadline. Yet, millions of Americans fill out brackets and gamble with a certain level of confidence every single year.
While filling out a free bracket on ESPN and betting money on the tournament are two very different things, the success of Malaquias4394 and Sam Holtz goes to show how gambling on the tournament is unwise. Two people with very little basketball knowledge experienced greater success than most gamblers last year. Rational thought will not help you create a successful March Madness bracket.
People love the thrill of possibly picking the entire tournament correctly, winning money, and having ESPN talk about them for every NCAA tournament to come. There is no doubt that I will be filling out a bracket this year as well.
Millions of Americans, myself included, simply cannot avoid the Madness.