It’s the most wonderful time of the year for many college basketball fans, as March Madness approaches. In the next few days or weeks, you might see a something called a bracket printed out or being posted on social media. Over 60 million Americans fill out a bracket each year in hopes of predicting all 63 games and receiving $1 million every year for life.
So, what’s the big deal with these brackets, anyways? Let’s take a look at how they started and eventually became a phenomenon.
The very first bracket in a sports tournament came in 1851, at a chess tournament in London. London was hosting the Great Exhibition for British technology, and English chess master Howard Staunton set out to organize the world’s first international chess tournament. There was a field of 16 players, and Staunton needed to narrow the field down to one winner. So, he decided to make eight pairs, with the losers of each being eliminated from contention. Instead of seeding players to decide pairings (like the modern NCAA tournament), Staunton had each draw a random lot. Pictured below is what Staunton’s bracket looked like.
On the other hand, the first official NCAA bracket pool is thought to have started in a Staten Island bar. 88 people filled out brackets in the pool and paid $10 in a winner-take-all format. In 2006, in the same bar, 150,000 entered, and prize money went beyond $1.5 million. However, 1985 was the year that brackets really took off. The NCAA tournament suddenly expanded to 64 teams, the highest it had ever been. This gave underdog teams more of an opportunity, creating lots of excitement, upsets, and ultimately fueling the popularity of the brackets.
In the past 20 years, the NCAA has created an entire industry, from analysis websites to online courses designed to help people fill out the perfect bracket. Brackets have especially helped with marketing March Madness, and the term ‘bracket’ is basically synonymous with March Madness. Social media is filled with pictures of completed brackets, and dozens of commercials and ads are made reminding us to fill them out. Even Disney fans have put their own spin on them (pictured below.)
For as long as I can remember, I have completed a bracket. Growing up as a huge sports fan, even if I didn’t know each team competing in the tournament, it was fun to see how many games I could predict correctly. It also made me pay attention to the tournament more than usual if my favorite team wasn’t competing. Since the NCAA tournament first started, there has not been one person who has guessed each game correctly. Maybe that will change in the future, but for now, if you plan on filling out a bracket for March Madness this year, happy bracket-ing!