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  • Writer's pictureScott Sutherland

The Birth of Bracketology That Fuels March Madness Devotion

As the first-round tip-offs commenced last week to kick off March Madness, the other great pastime associated with the NCAA tournament, Bracketology rages on right alongside each game and every round. Bracketology today runs in two phases. The first phase is about trying to correctly pick the 68 teams the NCAA Committee will actually invite to the tournament. And then, once the field is set, Bracketology swings into a new and bigger phase that revolves around correctly picking the outcome of every game. Bracketology serves two purposes. First, it allows sports industry luminaries across the media spectrum to try their hand at choosing the teams that will actually get invited to March Madness. More specifically, Bracketologists try to predict not just the team but their actual seed in the tourney. But more importantly, Bracketology also drives a massive online debate, discussion and, in some cases screaming matches that have become a massive media revenue and readership generator that has probably never seen an equal. First, a little history so we can see how modern sports merged with modern technology to create the perfect storm. When the NCAA Tournament began in 1939, it featured only eight NCAA teams arranged in two regional brackets. The field slowly expanded over the years, increasing public interest. The introduction and proliferation of the copier gave a big push to what would become modern bracketology. In 1975 the tourney expanded to 32 teams, expanding interest to new audiences of fans. And in 1977, a Staten Island bar started one of the first NCAA Tournament pools. The 1985 expansion to 64 teams turned the event into a marathon and greatly increased the chances for upsets and surprises that drove engagement across a wide audience. But Bracketology really exploded in 1995 when a little-known basketball stats fanatic named Joe Lunardi, who was holed up in his wintery home near Philadelphia, published his first bracket prediction in the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. The Philadelphia Inquirer was the first to label Lunardi a Bracketologist. And thus, a star—and a new media industry—was born. A few years later, Lunardi partnered with ESPN, and Bracketology exploded. Lunardi's first bracket on CNN quickly collected 250,000 hits. Today his weekly bracket predictions draw millions of clicks and eyeballs monetized by the sports leader. Lunardi quickly saw competition crop up across the Internet. Today there are dozens of "Bracketologists" using all the latest computer modeling and data crunching techniques available. No one seems to know exactly how much revenue brackets drive, but it's safe to say they generate millions of dollars for internet and broadcast sports outlets. It's estimated that 45 percent of the adult American population completes a bracket before the first tip of the first round. The NCAA tournament already overshadows Major League Baseball's Playoffs, World Series, and even the NBA Playoffs when it comes to revenue generated. Only the Super Bowl draws larger audiences and revenue, but not by much, and the gap is closing. But I think everyone agrees that there is no rival to March Madness when it comes to audience engagement and passion.


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