NEW YORK — The First Four starts Tuesday, and the First Round kicks off two days later. But the unofficial start to March Madness is a 43-year-old TV program.
The thrill of victory and agony of defeat begins with CBS and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports’ joint production of tonight’s “NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Selection Show,” when basketball programs learn their fates in real time in front of millions of fans.
Once the full bracket is revealed on the air, the madness that engulfs the sports world for three weeks every year truly kicks into high gear.
TV partners begin planning telecasts across regions. Student-athletes, coaches, bands, officials, boosters, parents, and fans from hundreds of schools start booking flights and hotels. Millions of Americans will start filling out their brackets and preparing billions of dollars in wagers.
CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus likens the show to a “high-wire” act that sets the table for the banquet of buzzer-beaters, upsets, and Cinderella schools to come.
There are numerous programming and logistical challenges. The NCAA Selection Committee keeps the “official” bracket secret like the Best Picture winner at the Oscars.
CBS only gets the completed bracket 15 minutes to an hour in advance. On-air talent has to prepare for Insta-Analysis. Producers have to create graphics on the fly.
“Obviously everything is live, everything is in real time,” McManus said. From a technical standpoint, getting all the feeds in is a challenge. “And boy is it fun, after the bracket is out, to sit there and program which announcers are going to go where, and which games are going to be on CBS, TNT, TruTV, and TBS. It’s a Rubik’s Cube: You sit there and put it together on Sunday night. There’s nothing like it in sports television.”
A 43-Year History
If there’s a throwback to the pioneering days of mainstream sports broadcasts, it has to be the Selection Show. It has something in common with its football cousin, the NFL Draft: Few thought these two mundane events could become must-see TV — until they did.
Both events took place for decades behind the scenes, both were first televised in 1980, and fledgling cable network ESPN televised their maiden broadcasts.
That year, the NCAA tournament committee simply faxed six month-old ESPN the bracket. A young anchor named Bob Ley read the results.
Then anticipation for tournament pairings took on a life of its own. Within a couple of years, the suspense surrounding the Selection Show made it a TV rite of spring.
CBS acquired the rights in 1982, creating the live format we know today, but the show still flew by the seat of its pants in the early days.
For a while, Jim Nantz and the late Billy Packer would call the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden before rushing uptown — on the New York City subway, no less — to shoot the Selection Show.
Brent Musburger popularized the term “March Madness” (first coined by an Illinois high school official in 1939) during TV coverage of the 1982 tournament.
Now the Selection Show is part of the fabric of the 84-year-old knockout tournament, along with “One Shining Moment” and the cutting of the nets.
Who’s Who of Broadcasters
Since 1982, a Who’s Who of broadcasters have appeared on the venerable show, ranging from hosts like Nantz, Musburger, Greg Gumbel, James Brown, and Pat O’Brien to analysts such as Clark Kellogg, Seth Davis, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Mike Francesa.
Over the years, the program has expanded and contracted, airing variously for 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 90 minutes, and two hours.
Fans roasted CBS/TNT for teasing the bracket over two bloated hours in 2016 — at which point the networks retreated back to the current 60-minute format.
The same year, a mysterious prankster leaked the entire bracket on Twitter midway through the show. That spoiled the only attempt at a two-hour version of the program. The leaker was hailed as a hero for nipping a bad idea in the bud.
The lesson: Lead with the bracket, not talking-head analysis.
Bonnie Bernstein, who appeared on the Selection Show in 2001, said it could probably run just 15 minutes — but she realizes networks need to make money from advertisers.
“It’s all about the dollars and cents,” she said.
Telling The Story
Fox Sports radio host Doug Gottlieb has experienced the tournament both as a CBS analyst on the Selection Show and as a college basketball star at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State.
As TV properties, these shows have it all, said Gottlieb. There’s suspense, surprise, elation, heartbreak and of course, controversy. A select 68 schools get to dance, and the rest are wallflowers. Cue the debate.
Meanwhile, CBS/TNT will post camera crews to 15 “bubble schools” to capture the live reaction of students as they find out if they’ve been invited to the Big Dance.
These shots are essential to capturing the emotions surrounding the event, said Luis Silberwasser, chairman of WBD Sports.
“We need to make sure we continue to be focused on storytelling. Part of that storytelling, especially on Sunday, is the reaction from the schools themselves,” he said. “From the fans. From the students. We want to be focused on that — and bring that to the screen on Sunday.
Everybody In The Pool
Then there’s the gambling lure for hard-core and casual sports fans.
The Selection Show dictates how 45 million Americans will wager $3.1 billion on March Madness, according to last year’s study by the American Gaming Association.
36.5 million Americans were expected to bet via a bracket contest or pool. 20.9 million were expected to bet outside of a pool, at a retail sports book, online, with a bookie or friends. More than 17% of U.S. adults were expected to wager.
British magazine “The Economist” archly observed that trying to pick a perfect bracket is a “futile exercise.” The odds of a perfect bracket are 1 in 9.2 quintillion. But Americans don’t care. There are bragging rights at stake.
The chance to fill out a bracket — and, say, beat someone from accounting in the $5 office pool — is too good to pass up. The lucky few will win some bucks. The rest will wring their hands over their busted brackets.
But the gimmick helps drive TV viewership and keeps both tournaments top of mind.
“The bracket is everything,” Gottlieb noted. “The bracket provides the ability for anyone and everyone, even people who have zero clue about the sport, to believe they have an equal chance of winning.”
Last year’s Selection Show on CBS averaged 5 million viewers, down about 9% from the year before.
A Case of The Mondays
The Women’s Selection Show is a case study in a major question plaguing women’s basketball: Is it better to pair up with the men, or go off on their own?
In this case, pairing up paid off.
Since 2006, the women’s show had been dubbed “Selection Monday” — and was held the day after the men’s tournament’s show. But last year, ESPN made a switch.
ESPN — which holds the rights to the entire women’s tournament — moved the women’s show to primetime Sunday evening, two hours after the men’s show aired on CBS and a slightly delayed men’s reveal aired on ESPN. This year’s “NCAA Women’s Selection Special” will follow the same format.
The reason for the change was logistical: Last year, the NCAA expanded the women’s field from 64 to 68 teams — same as the men’s. In order to accommodate a First Four, it gave the NCAA and women’s teams an extra day to travel and prepare for the first round of play.
The show — hosted by ESPN’s top women’s basketball crew, including “SportsCenter” anchor Elle Duncan — was able to dig into the season and teach viewers about the strengths and weaknesses of top teams.
That’s an incredibly important opportunity for women’s March Madness, which is looking to pique the interest of general sports fans with intriguing storylines on or off the court.
The bracket reveal, held on ESPN proper, garnered more than 1 million viewers — a 160% increase from 2021, and more than any since 2005.
Belly of The Beast
One of the charms of both Selection Shows is the immediate, vitriolic second-guessing of committee choices by on-air talent, journalists, coaches and fans on social media.
As business partners with the NCAA, CBS, TNT, and ESPN tread a fine line when it comes to critiquing choices, seeds, rankings. But they don’t bow and scrape either.
The bottom line is that suspense and surprise give the shows their sizzle — and on-air personalities are as anxious to see the bracket as viewers, according to Bernstein.
“You are right in the maelstrom. You are wading through the belly of the proverbial beast.”