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The Bracket Is the Hub of an Entire Business Ecosystem

  • Millions of Americans fill out March Madness brackets each year.
  • The phenomenon is big business and has created an entire subsection of media.
A basketball player dunks a basketball with the March Madness logo on a big screen prominently in the background.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a simple beauty to the March Madness bracket.

A tree diagram that starts with 68 horizontal lines on its fringes whittles itself down via perpendicular vertical lines until only one horizontal line remains at its center.

That basic geometry has become the symbol for a cultural phenomenon that enchants the nation for one month each year and entices millions of Americans to participate — turning the month of March into big business for men’s and women’s college basketball.

The biggest draw? The storylines behind scrappy underdogs: The unexpected come-ups of a Saint Peter’s, or a George Mason, or a Fairleigh Dickinson can only exist in the format.

Casual and diehard fans alike enter bracket games created by some of sports media’s titans, and stake their hard-earned money wagering on them. The legalized betting industry also claims a growing number of traditional wagers.

The phenomenon has created an entire subsection of media committed to the month, with “bracketology” analysts tirelessly predicting which teams will make up the bracket before it debuts on widely-watched selection shows.

It also represents another battleground for sports gender equity: The men’s tournament still dominates the resources committed to bracket games — despite a demonstrated increase in interest for the women’s competition.

Natural Selection

After the conference champions are crowned and the automatic bids are claimed, the process of selecting the at-large bids and seeding all the teams begins with a NET — and not the kind that gets cut down.

After years of vague selection processes based on rating percentage index (RPI), the NCAA Evaluation Tool was rolled out for the 2019 men’s and 2021 women’s tournaments.

NET initially relied on five factors for creating its rankings, later narrowed down to two.

Adjusted net efficiency (points per 100 possessions) takes into account the strength of opponents played and location of games (home/away/neutral). Team value index further weighs wins against difficult teams, especially on the road.

The selection committee also utilizes the quadrant system — which ranks wins and losses based on location and team quality — to select and seed teams, sorted by NET.

The process ends when the selection committees deliver their verdicts to CBS and ESPN — which broadcast them for the dozens of teams and millions of fans anxiously waiting to find out who will be playing and where.

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The Ecosystem

Illinois and Arkansas tip off their game at the 2023 men's March Madness tournament.
Illinois and Arkansas were both at-large bids for the 2023 men’s tournament. Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond a sports competition, March Madness represents an entire gaming enterprise generating specific ecosystems for some of the biggest players in sports media and betting.

ESPN, CBS, and even the NCAA itself are among the companies with challenges that allow fans to pick every game for one bracket out of 9.2 quintillion possibilities.

ESPN’s “Tournament Challenge” attracts people to both its dedicated bracket challenge app and its general fantasy app — which encourages consumers to interact with its other content.

“On the technical side, we have a team that supports a very large sports digital ecosystem,” says Walt Disney Company EVP of consumer experiences and platforms Mike White.

Bracket game apps consistently become the most popular in app stores in the days leading up to the tournament each year

ESPN’s Tournament Challenge currently ranks second among all free apps in Apple’s app store. NCAA March Madness Live ranks third. The CBS Sports app is fourth.

West Virginia Mountaineers forward Jimmy Bell Jr. (15) battles for the ball between Maryland Terrapins guard Ian Martinez (23) and forward Patrick Emilien (15) during the first half in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at Legacy Arena.

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Meanwhile, the 2023 tournament is projected to attract 68 million American adults collectively wagering $15.5 billion, per a survey from the American Gaming Association. Within that figure, 56.3 million plan to enter a bracket contest with a buy-in.

And as legalized sports betting continues to grow, so too does the volume of March Madness bets.

Thirty-one million American adults plan to place a traditional ​​bet online, at a retail sportsbook, or with a bookie — and three-quarters of surveyed online bettors say this will be their first time placing a wager online.

Science of Bracketology

A view inside an ESPN studio where its Bracketology show is being filmed.
ESPN’s Bracketology show. Credit: ESPN

The popularity of bracket contests has created an entire subsection of media.

After “majoring in college basketball indirectly” at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, ESPN’s “resident bracketologist” Joe Lunardi eventually became the managing editor and owner of the Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook — a 400-page book released before the men’s tournament each year for the “junkies” of the sport.

His invention of “Bracketology” came out of necessity: Covering over 100 teams for Blue Ribbon had become costly, so Lunardi developed a system for predicting which teams would be in the bracket, thus limiting the number of teams his staff would need to handle.

When ESPN needed to fill out ESPNews and its fledgling website near the turn of the millennium, it turned to Lunardi, whose analytical content paired perfectly with bracket competitions that were becoming increasingly digital.

“I don’t know that this would be what it is without digital communications and social media,” Lunardi told Front Office Sports. “It’s made it a real-time enterprise.”

The demand for college basketball analysis — leading up to and during the tournaments — has therefore become paramount across the industry.

CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein has crafted an entire persona for March Madness on display throughout the year.

CBS and Warner Bros. Discovery’s shared rights for the tournament has created an All-Star team of basketball studio analysts, including Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Candace Parker, Seth Davis, and Jay Wright.

Blind Spot

The South Carolina women's basketball team waves to the crowd at a game.
South Carolina is the No. 1 overall seed in the women’s basketball tournament. Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Bracket challenges, betting information, and media coverage of the women’s tournament are all still inching toward equity.

Until this season, CBS didn’t even offer the ability for fans to create bracket pool challenges for the women’s tournament — a situation finally rectified this year (CBS declined FOS’ request for comment on this story).

Action Network, known for betting information and pick tracking, still doesn’t offer women’s college basketball as an option (Action Network didn’t respond to FOS’ request for comment).

This, despite a growing appetite for the women’s game among college basketball fans.

NCAA women’s basketball games averaged nearly 200,000 viewers per game on ESPN networks, the most since 2014-15. February’s South Carolina-LSU matchup averaged 1.5 million, the most watched regular-season game on the network since 2010. Big Ten Network reported viewership records this season for an individual game (Iowa vs. Maryland), conference tournament, and full regular season.

After moving from Monday to Sunday in 2022, ESPN’s women’s selection show averaged 1.27 million viewers in 2023 — an 18% increase and the best since 2005. ESPN also completely sold out its ad inventory for the 2023 women’s tournament.

Jan 27, 2020; Hartford, Connecticut, USA; 2020 USA Womens National Team guard Sue Bird (6) (left) and guard Diana Taurasi (12) on the sideline as they take on the UConn Huskies in the second half at XL Center. Team USA defeated UConn 79-64.
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Outlets offering women’s bracket games in the past are seeing growth there, too: White says that its women’s Tournament Challenge saw an approximately 67% increase in users last season and a 4x increase overall since launching the game for the first time.

“We do it because that’s where our fans are,” White adds. “With the growth and the numbers, we’re seeing real success there. We do have the [TV] rights, as you know, but we would invest in it anyway.”

Beyond The Business

The excitement of March Madness remains unmatched for one reason: The unpredictable drama of a single-elimination tournament, where one game can mean the end of the loftiest championship aspirations and the next step in a Cinderella run.

In 2018, Virginia came into the men’s tournament with the top overall seed. In the First Round, University of Maryland, Baltimore County took the Cavaliers down — the first and only time a No. 16 team has upset a No. 1.

Does that mean UMBC had a better basketball team than Virginia? Probably not. Played out over a seven-game series, Virginia probably beats UMBC in five games.

“[Upsets happen] at least enough times to keep us coming back because of the one-and-done nature of the event,” says Lunardi.

Whether you’re hooked on the unpredictability, the underdog spirit, or betting outcomes, anyone and everyone can be a fan for one month.

“It’s sort of like a sports holiday, particularly those first games,” says White.

“I do think of all of our major sporting events in this country, this is probably one of, if not the most inclusive,” Lunardi says, “because we all went to school somewhere or we all have our home state, or hometown, or home rooting interests. Pro sports are generally the domain of the major cities and the big metropolitan areas. And here with the bracket, everybody can have a rooting interest.”

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