Brackets is at the center of the entire business ecosystem.



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

A tree diagram that starts with 68 horizontal lines then winds itself down through the vertical lines until one horizontal line remains in the middle.

That basic geometry has become the symbol of a cultural event that delights the nation for a month each year and that millions of Americans are excited to participate in — the big business of March for men’s and women’s college basketball.

The biggest draw? The stories behind the dogs: the unexpected events of St. Peter, or George Mason, or Fairlie Dickinson can only exist in the format.

Casual and die-hard fans enter bracket games created by some of the titans of sports media and gamble their hard-earned money on them. The legal betting industry also claims a growing number of traditional punters.

The event has spawned a whole subset of media dedicated to the month, with “bracketology” pundits tirelessly predicting which teams will make the bracket before the widely-watched selection shows begin.

It also represents another battleground for gender equality in sports: men’s competition still dominates investment in bracket games – even as demand for women’s competition has increased.

Natural selection

After the conference winners are crowned and automatic bids are claimed, the process of selecting at-large bids and seeding all teams begins with the NET — and not the cutoff.

After years of opaque selection processes based on the Rating Percentage Index (RPI), the NCAA Ranking Tool has been released for the 2019 men’s and 2021 women’s tournaments.

NET initially relied on five factors to create the standard, later narrowing it down to two.

Adjusted net efficiency (points per 100 possessions) takes into account the strength of the opponents played and the position of the game (home / away / neutral). The Team Value Index weighs wins against tough teams, especially on the road.

The selection committee uses a quadrant system for selecting and seeding teams ranked by NET – ranking winners and losers based on position and team quality.

The process culminates with the selection committees delivering their verdicts to CBS and ESPN – with dozens of teams and millions of fans anxiously waiting to find out who and where they will play.


Illinois and Arkansas play in 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 sports betting, March Madness represents a complete gaming organization that produces exclusive environments for the biggest players in sports media and betting.

ESPN, CBS, and the NCAA itself are among the challenges that allow fans to pick every game for a bracket out of 9.2 quintillion options.

ESPN’s “Race of the Tournament” draws people to a special bracket challenge app and a general virtual app – encouraging consumers to engage with its other content.

“On the technical side, we have a team that supports a very large sports digital ecosystem,” says The Walt Disney Company’s EVP of Consumer Experiences and Platforms.

Bracket game apps become the most popular in the app stores every year in the days before the tournament

ESPN Racing is currently the second-ranked free app in the Apple App Store. NCAA March Madness Live ranked third. The CBS Sports app is fourth.

Meanwhile, the 2023 tournament is projected to generate $15.5 billion in combined earnings for 68 million American adults, according to research from the American Gaming Association. Of this figure, 56.3 million plan to enter the bracket competition by purchase.

And as legal sports betting continues to grow, so does the amount of March Madness betting.

Thirty-one million American adults plan to place a traditional bet online, at a retail sportsbook, or with a book — and three-quarters of surveyed online bettors say it’s their first time betting online.

The Science of Bracketology

A look inside the ESPN studio where the Bracketology show is filmed.
The ESPN Bracketology Show. Credit: ESPN

The popularity of bracket tournaments has spawned an entire media segment.

After “playing college basketball indirectly” at Saint 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 each year before the men’s tournament. “Junkies” of the sport.

The invention of “Bracketology” grew out of necessity: Covering more than 100 teams for the Blue Ribbon was too expensive, so Lunardi developed a system to evaluate which teams would be in the bracket.

When ESPN needed to supplement ESPNews and its website around the turn of the millennium, it turned to Lunardi, whose analytical content is a perfect match for the increasingly digitalized bracket competitions.

“I don’t know if this would have happened without digital communications and social media,” Lunardi told Front Office Sports. “It’s made it a real-time organization.”

The need for college basketball analysis – leading up to and during tournaments – has therefore become paramount in the industry.

CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein has been doing full coverage for March Madness all year.

CBS and Warner Bros. Discovery’s joint rights to the tournament have 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 during 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 moving towards fairness.

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

Action Network, known for betting and tracking data, still does not offer women’s college basketball as an option (Action Network did not respond to FOS’s request for comment).

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

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

In the year After moving from Monday to Sunday in 2022, ESPN’s women’s poll averaged 1.27 million viewers in 2023 — an 18 percent increase and the best since 2005.

Broadcasters offering women’s bracket games are also seeing growth, with the White Women’s Tournament reporting an estimated 67 percent increase in users last season and a 4x overall increase since the game’s debut.

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

Beyond the business

The excitement of March Madness remains unparalleled for one reason: the drama of the unpredictable single-elimination tournament, a game that could mark the end of the highest championship aspirations and the next step in a Cinderella run.

In the year In 2018, Virginia entered the men’s tournament with the top overall seed. In the first round, the University of Maryland took down the Baltimore County Cavaliers – the first and only No. 1 seed of the 16th to be upset.

Does this mean UMBC had a better basketball team than Virginia? Probably not. Virginia, which is on a seven game streak, has probably beaten 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.

Unexpectedly, anyone and everyone can become a fan for a month, whether you’re obsessed with fake spirits or betting results.

“It’s like a celebration of sports, especially the first games,” White said.

Lunardi said: “I think about our major sporting events in this country, this may or may not be one, because we all went to school somewhere or we all have a home country or hometown, or home roots interests. Pro sports are generally the domain of major cities and large metropolitan areas. And here in parentheses, everyone can have a basic need.


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