March 14 was “International Ask a Question Day,” and over on our Facebook page, we invited our readers to, well, ask a question and be entered in a giveaway. The response was overwhelming—hundreds of you BRI stalwarts posed a trivia conundrum. Unfortunately, we can’t answer all of them and not everyone can be a winner, but we did pick five of the most intriguing one…which we’re going to answer here. One of our winning questions comes from reader Donald L., who asked…
How did “March Madness” get started?
While college football has tried a number of systems to determine a champion each year amidst its slew of contractually-obligated and historically significant bowl games, the NCAA basketball champions have been decided since 1939 in a clear and direct way: a huge post-season tournament. Today it’s nicknamed “March Madness,” because that’s when it takes place and it’s a lot of fun.
1939: The First Men’s Basketball Tournament
In 1939, the first men’s basketball tournament was held. Eight teams, all winners of their conferences, were invited to attend. In the final game, the University of Oregon defeated Ohio State 46 to 33. In 1951, the field started expanding…and expanding…and expanding. These days the tournament consists of 68 teams—a handful of teams “play in” for four spots, and the teams play games in a single elimination format, going from 64 to 32 to the “sweet 16” to the “elite 8” to the “Final Four,” then just two teams that play for the national title.
Apart from the actual on-court basketball action, one of the most important parts of March Madness is filling out “the bracket.” After the teams are announced and given their seedings, millions carefully take that bracket of squads and predict who will win every game, down to the final game. Generally, this will lead to some gambling, or at least a pool or a contest at work with the most accurate bracket at the end of March Madness winning a prize. The first person to popularize amateur “bracketology”: a Staten Island bar owner named Jody Haggerty, of Jody’s Club Forest. In 1977, he offered his customers a chance to predict the winners. Entry fee: $10, and with 88 people competing, the winner got all of the money, or $880. Over the years, the pot grew…and the concept of the contest spread around the country. The tournament is now one of the most heavily gambled-on sports events in the world—last year alone, $10.4 billion worth of bets were placed.
The Story of the phrase “March Madness.”
So that’s the story of March Madness, but here’s the story of the phrase “March Madness.” From the 1930s onward, the phrase was used to describe the Illinois boys high school basketball tournament. Ex-Chicago, Illinois, sports reporter Brent Musburger picked up the phrase, and while calling NCAA tournament games in 1982, used the phrase on the air. It stuck.