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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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‘Everybody Was Under Suspicion’: The Day Selection Sunday Was Scooped

  • In 2016, CBS’s first two-hour version of the ‘Selection Show’ backfired when the bracket was leaked anonymously.
  • The word inside NCAA: The culprit was a network TV staffer who didn’t follow college basketball.
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Heading into the 35th edition of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Selection Show on March 13, 2016, CBS and the former Turner Sports were brimming with confidence. Blueblood Duke was the reigning national champion of the most-watched tournament in 22 years, averaging 11.3 million viewers across networks.

For the first time, the joint March Madness broadcasters were planning to expand the iconic program—originally a brisk 30 minutes—to two full hours, an ambitious idea for one of the longest-running reality shows on TV.

But live TV is a high-wire act full of programming and logistical variables, and big reveals—especially drawn-out ones—are not always a good thing. Exhibit A: when the bracket was infamously leaked on social media during the show.  

Then, as now, the NCAA treated the bracket with the secrecy of nuclear launch codes. The committee rented an entire floor of a midtown Manhattan hotel, posting guards at the elevators, recalls then chief information officer Judd Williams. The NCAA issued the bracket to broadcast partners only 30 minutes in advance, and as usual, TV staffers were forewarned of the consequences of a security breach. “They informed everybody their job was at stake,” says one former CBS staffer who worked that day.

The plan: The buttoned-up CBS would marry its more traditional show, costarring Doug Gottlieb, Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg, and Seth Davis, to Turner’s freewheeling Inside the NBA crew of Charles Barkley, Kenny “The Jet” Smith, and Ernie Johnson. 

Once the broadcast tipped off at the nearby CBS Broadcast Center at 5:30 p.m. ET, the only technical problem seemed to be Barkley’s struggles with his touch screen. But viewer frustration was building. Over the decades, college basketball fans had become accustomed to quick reveals of the field and the regional matchups. But to fill two hours, CBS dragged out the suspense, taking 20 minutes to announce the first game, which annoyed many who were impatient to fill out their own brackets. Not to mention anxious coaches and players on bubble teams. 

Gottlieb was on the air when the first hint of trouble arrived: “I looked down at my phone. Literally had 25 texts asking, ‘Is this bracket real?’” A Twitter user with the handle @RICHIE spoiled CBS’s big moment, posting a copy of the bona fide bracket. The user deleted his account—but not before his tweet went viral and the hashtag #leakedbracket trended. It didn’t take long for the sports world to recognize it was the real McCoy.

In South Bend, the Notre Dame sports information director rushed up to tell then head coach Mike Brey that the bracket had leaked. Brey recalls he immediately started scouting first-round opponent Michigan, while his staff began booking travel for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. “It was great. We got an hour head start on scouting and travel,” Brey laughs. 

Many other opportunistic coaches nationwide began following suit while the show was still airing. By the time it was over, Brey recalls that his Fighting Irish players with New York roots were already setting up dates with girlfriends in the Big Apple. “They were on their phones. They had plans and dinners set up, and their families got a head start on travel,” says Brey, who’s now an assistant coach for the Atlanta Hawks.

One-hundred fifty miles away at NCAA HQ in Indianapolis, Williams had a much different reaction: “Pure dread.” 

“We were like, ‘Is this real?’ They said, ‘We’re checking.’ Then during the commercial break, they told us, ‘Yes, it’s real—but not everybody’s on Twitter,’” recalls Gottlieb, who now hosts his eponymous show on Fox Sports Radio. “Which is true. You can’t overreact to social media. But in that particular case, it felt like everybody who mattered was on social media.” Although all the air had gone out of the program, on-air talent like Gottlieb were told: The show must go on. 

Online critics already panning the show hailed the leaker as the “hero America needed.” Behind the scenes, the hunt was on for the culprit.

But CBS staffers were afraid to ask about the situation in case they came under suspicion. They were afraid to pick up their phones in case bosses thought they were trying to cover their tracks. As the former CBS staffer recalls: “It was scary. You had to account for where you went and who you talked to. Someone took a screenshot, shared it—and all hell broke loose.”

Meanwhile, the NCAA went into “lockdown mode,” recalls Williams, who now serves as vice president of technology for the Memphis Grizzlies: “We were freaking out. … Nobody was saying anything. But everybody was under suspicion.”

Eventually the NCAA pointed the finger at its broadcast partners for the security breach. Why? Because the NCAA delivered a bare-bones version of the bracket to the networks, who then gussied it up with sponsor logos for TV, according to Williams. The bracket that appeared on Twitter had the markings of the TV-ready version, not the original NCAA document. 

Unfortunately for CBS, the rest of the sports media exhibited little sympathy. Chris Miller, a play-by-play announcer for the Washington Wizards, forwarded the leaked bracket to his followers with the note: “No reason to wait around to watch the show. You’re welcome, folks.”

The show’s TV rating plunged 20% to a record overnight low of 3.7, and the next day, USA Today accused the NCAA and CBS of “ruining” Selection Sunday. “CBS got greedy, turned what should have been a 30-minute program into a two-hour program, and demanded America sit, wait and—most importantly—watch commercials,” wrote the paper.

In the weeks that followed, the NCAA launched an investigation. Turns out, the source of the leak (who the NCAA never publicly identified) was not a Russian hacker seeking to undermine U.S. sports.

According to Williams, the word inside NCAA was that a TV staffer—who didn’t know much about basketball—forwarded the bracket to a buddy who was a hoops fan. 

“He was like, ‘Is this something cool?’” Williams recalls. “That’s the story. I don’t know if it’s true or not. I would like to believe it is. But it was a crazy six hours.”

Since then, the NCAA confirmed it has further limited the number of people with access to the bracket. But they declined to give details. “Each year we take steps to try and prevent the bracket from being leaked,” spokesperson David Worlock tells FOS. “We did alter our protocols slightly after 2016.” CBS and TNT declined to comment.

Only three years later, the women’s bracket leaked—and this time the culprit was ESPN. The 2019 women’s bracket was supposed to be unveiled on ESPN’s Selection Show at 7 p.m. But three hours before air, ESPNU accidentally televised graphics revealing huge chunks. Within minutes, online sleuths had pieced together the whole shebang. The NCAA and ESPN moved the telecast up to 5 p.m. ET. But the damage was done. 

ESPN issued an apology reading: “In working with the NCAA to prepare for tonight’s Women’s Selection Special we received the bracket, similar to years past. In the midst of our preparation, the bracket was mistakenly posted on ESPNU. We deeply regret the error and extend our apology to the NCAA and the women’s basketball community. We will conduct a thorough review of our process to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.” 

The good news for critics of the two-hour Selection Show format? Tonight’s live show on CBS will run only one hour (6–7 p.m. ET). Ever since 2016, CBS has front-loaded selections and saved the hot take analysis for later. Hopefully for CBS, it will go off without a hitch. But given the intricacies of TV, Williams is “amazed” leaks don’t happen more often. “It’s just difficult to keep that kind of stuff under wraps,” he warns.

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