The odds of it happening are one in 9.2 quintillion: you’re more likely to die an excruciating death by vending machine, become president, win the Mega Millions jackpot or die from incorrectly using products made for right-handed people (if you're a lefty) than fill out a perfect NCAA basketball bracket in 2014.
The odds are definitely never in our favor—but that isn’t enough to quell America’s fascination with the tournament bracket. Over 60 million Americans fill out a bracket each year, with 1 billion dollars potentially spent on off-book gambling. The bracket is an elegant solution to the age-old problem of how to effectively separate the best from the worst. In reality, the NCAA tournament's outcome historically complicates the bracket's facade of simplicity, laughing in the face of die-hard fans who study all season as those who fill out a bracket based on mascot/color preference take the winnings. A 16 seed has never beaten a 1 seed, but that's about the only constant. Only once have four 1 seeds made it to the Final Four (2008); a 10 seed won't get to the Final Four, but an 11 seed might (it's happened three times).
But the bracket's fickle nature isn't its downfall: it's a large part of the bracket's appeal. "Some things seem so obvious, like the idea these higher seeds should beat lower seeds all the time, but that doesn’t necessarily happen, and that results in all sorts of chaos," explains Ken Pomeroy, creator of the college basketball website kenpom.com. "There’s that desire to try to predict something that’s difficult to predict." Forty years ago, picking a winner in the NCAA tournament was easy (spell it with me: U-C-L-A), and people weren't filling out brackets. It wasn't until the tournament expanded to 64 teams—and upsets became easier—that the NCAA bracket became a national phenomenon.
The first NCAA bracket pool—putting some money where your bracket is—is thought to have started in 1977 in a Staten Island bar. 88 people filled out brackets in the pool that year, and paid $10 in a winner-take-all format. At the same bar, in 2006, 150,000 entered, and prize money exceeded $1.5 million. So much money was exchanged that the federal government took notice, and the bar's pool went on a hiatus*. But its history serves as a concrete example of the metoric rise in the NCAA bracket's popularity from the mid-70s to today.
In the beginning, there were eight teams. The first tournament was held in 1939, but it wasn't the NCAA men's basketball tournament—it was run by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, and featured eight teams split into two groups. The University of Oregon went on to win (for the first and, to this day, only time) and the National Association of Coaches went on to lose money. Attendance at the first tournament totaled 15,025 for all games. By comparision, last year's tournament saw more than 800,000 people in attendance. All of this is to say: The Big Dance wasn't always popular with the American public.
After the first tournament, the NCAA stepped in and took the reins, gradually expanding the tournament to include more teams—but public interest in the bracket wasn't expanding along with it. By the 1950s, the tournament included 23 teams and nine byes, making the prospect of filling out a bracket even more confusing than it is today.
But that's not the only reason people weren't interested in filling out brackets. Through the 1960s and the 1970s, anyone with cursory knowledge of college basketball could predict the tournament's winner. The UCLA Bruins were the tournament's masters, winning 10 championships in 12 years, with their first coming in 1964.
"The dominance of the Bruins was so powerful that no one was talking about seeding or anything, because UCLA always won the tournament so it didn’t matter where other teams were seeded," explains Ken Rappoport, co-author of The Big Dance: The Story of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. With the tournament a virtual cinch for UCLA, people weren't interested in trying to predict how the tournament would go.
"People get tired of the same team winning, and of the top players going to that school and perpetuating the winning," Barry Wilner, Rappoport's co-author, adds. "It changed for UCLA when John Wooden retired."
In 1975, Wooden hung up his clipboard, but that wasn't the only major change to the NCAA tournament. The tournament expanded that year to 32 teams, creating a much more user friendly, symmetrical bracket. Four years later, in 1979, Magic Johnson’s Michigan State met Larry Byrd’s Indiana State in the tournament final. It was a watershed moment, one that many credit with turning the tournament from a quaint event into a national excitement. All of the sudden, the public actually cared what happened in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
"They were the focus of national attention, and soon became very hot rivals in the NBA, but that game was a turning point for the NCAAs. That game had a lot of national interest," Rappoport says. "The NCAA, for many years before that, went through a lot of these tournaments without any TV coverage. One of the final games, in fact, was on tape delay, so it wasn’t even shown live. The 1980s brought more interest into the tournament."
In 1985, the NCAA tournament finally reached the size of 64 teams, turning the event into the near month-long marathon of basketball that it is today. (It's currently at 68 teams, but four teams compete in "play-in" games to reach the traditional 64-team bracket)
"1985 was a key year, when the expansion went to 64 teams. It gave the underdogs more of an opportunity," says Rappoport. "That created a lot of excitement, a lot of upsets, and that helped to fuel the brackets."
"Considering the age of the NCAA tournament, the fan brackets are relatively new. They have been popular for about 20 years or so, but really took off in the last dozen or so," says Wilner. "TV had a lot to do with popularizing brackets. The invention of bracketology and Bracket Buster weekends on the court, and then having the likes of ESPN pounding those phrases into the consciousness of basketball fans, was a major contributor."
The NCAA bracket has spawned an entire industry, from analysis websites to online courses, all designed to help people fill out their perfect bracket. Statisticians and math professors proselytize the elegance of numbers as a means for achieving bracket glory. Others look for trends in other places. If, for example, you're going by school colors, it's best to pick toward the blue end of the color wheel: only once in the last ten years has a champion not had a shade of blue in their school colors.
NCAA bracket madness has also spawned a social phenonmenon: The Wire, proclaiming March the "bracket-iest month of the year," is rolling out competing brackets each week in a "tournament of everything." Even the federal government is getting in on the madness, betting that a bracket will make the Affordable Care Act relevant to millenials. It's hard to turn anywhere on the Internet without running into a bracket of some kind.
But, as Wilner notes, the bracket madness goes beyond more than winning—it gives people a tangible interest in a world that at most times of the year feels closed to a casual observer. "Filling out a bracket gives fans a rooting interest in games," he says, "adding to the passion and the devotion to the tournament."
*Editor's Note, April 2, 2014. Originally, this sentence stated that the bar had been shut down after federal investigation. While the bar's owner did plead guilty to federal tax evasion in 2010, the bar is still in business.