Bracket Madness

It’s not just college basketball fans these days. Brackets are the rage in all parts of popular culture.

March 20, 2014

March Madness is upon us.

Thursday 64 college basketball teams will begin their mad dash through the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, and the Final Four, to vy in the NCAA championship game on Sunday, April 6.

But bracket madness has been going on a lot longer. Many folks have sweated over their selections or watched office mates - or President Obama - mull, debate, and endlessly discuss their own bracket choices.

If you’re like me though, the word brackets usually conjures something other than basketball. Like those handy crescent-moon shaped punctuation marks. Or supports for a shelf.

I know I’m not alone here. But these days I do feel like an outlier. The President’s annual interview with ESPN has helped turn brackets – or “Barackatology” -  into the must-have spring accessory.

But used to be, if you weren’t a sports fan, a college student or college grad, or someone subject to hard-core inter-office peer pressure, it was pretty easy to maintain your bracket blindness.

Not anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t caved. I’m not pondering shooting percentages or whether Coastal Carolina has the coolest name in the Big South conference. But these days everything seems to have a bracket. Star War characters, fictional presidents from television or film, baked goods - all have been entered into those tidy little slots.

More recently, bracket-mania has hit even closer to home. Yes, public radio shows (and hosts) have a bracket.

“We went through shows that we like from around the country, shows that are interesting and new and that people may not know as well,” said Mike Roe, a web producer and blogger with KPCC in Southern California. “You know, trying to have a mix of those while also having people’s favorites like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and Radio Lab.

KPCC started their Public Radio Bracket Madness! last year. The bracket was such a big hit they did it again this year. Next year Roe hopes to expand it to a full 64 shows, just like the NCAA.

When I asked him why KPCC went the brackets route, Roe gave me a very public radio answer. It’s about starting a conversation.

“I mean that’s part of what makes it interesting is that it’s a thing that you can debate,” said Roe. “That makes it a blast to be a part of.”

Conversation, debate, passion – sure. But it’s also about money. Roe says his bracket drives traffic to KPCC’s website.

That’s exactly what the NCAA figured out – that the people who fill out brackets far outnumber the sport’s fan base. Dave Zirin, the sports editor at the Nation Magazine has done the math countless times.

“Ninety percent of the NCAA’s operating budget comes from the television contract for March Madness alone,” said Zirin. “So everything they do except for ten percent is tied to this tournament.”

So I get why the NCAA loves brackets. But what about the rest of us?

Zirin chalks it up to our love for underdogs. A bracket – in sports or pop culture – is designed to produce lots of upsets. Even the lowliest team can pull a game out from under a top contender when all you have to do is play them once.

Plus anyone can participate and even win, whether they study records and stats or just pick teams based on their mascots or uniform colors. Take the same model, apply it to baked goods or TV characters, and you get all the pleasures of competition with none of the downsides - like reality.

Zirin says reality - or the lack thereof - is another big driver. Most of us won’t ever be top athletes. But thanks to brackets, we can entertainment another fantasy - about playing basketball, like a boss.

“When I was growing my dreams were about playing for the New York Mets or playing for the Knicks,” said Zirin. “Basically when they’re playing fantasy sports people are dreaming about being owners, about being the executive who sits behind the desk and through their masterwork makes their own decision. It’s like everyone is playing risk instead of playing sports.”

Alison Cuddy is the Arts and Culture reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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