It’s once again bracket season. To kick off March Madness, we are reprinting this classic Explainer from 2012.
On Sunday, the NCAA unveiled the brackets for this year’s 68-team men’s basketball tournament. An estimated 45 percent of Americans fill out the brackets with their predictions of the results each year, and Barack Obama has referred to the practice as “a national pastime.” When were tournament brackets invented?
In the mid-1800s or before. One of the first single-elimination tournaments in the modern era was the London 1851 chess tournament, organized by the British champion Howard Staunton. Motivated by “the chivalrous anxiety to test the relative skill of the most distinguished champions,” he invited the top players from around Europe to London’s Great Exhibition. In a prospectus, Staunton laid out in some detail how a field of 32 competitors might neatly be whittled to a single champion by matching them in 16 pairs, then eight, then four, and so on—suggesting that the concept of a single-elimination tournament was not yet widely understood. “The mode adopted for pairing the combatants, will, it is hoped, bring the two best players in the Tournament into collision for the chief prize,” he explained.
Unfortunately, the idea of seeding contestants seems not to have occurred to him, and Staunton reports there were widespread complaints when some of the top players were eliminated in the first round. A diagram in his account of the proceedings shows that there were brackets, though not quite of the modern sort, since the winners of each round drew lots to see who would face each other in the next stage. The vagaries of that method led organizers to switch to a round-robin format in subsequent tournaments.
There had been tournaments before that, of course, but not of the sort that would be conducive to brackets. The word “tournament,” derived from the French word for jousting, came into use in medieval times, when squads of knights would face off on horseback in tests of chivalry. While those left standing often won prizes, the matchups weren’t formalized in advance. There were also brackets in medieval times, but they had nothing to do with tournaments: Certain transcriptions of Chaucer’s poetry use what some scholars call a “tournament bracket” format to highlight the tail rhymes.
One of the sports world’s oldest, ongoing single-elimination tournaments is the Wimbledon tennis championships, first held in 1877. (England’s Football Association held the first rounds of its Challenge Cup tournament in 1871.) Whether any of the 200-odd spectators who attended the first Wimbledon final had drawn up a bracket is doubtful, though: The field comprised 21 contestants, and byes were determined ad-hoc. The first known reference to seeding tournaments appeared in the journal American Lawn Tennis in 1898: “Several years ago, it was decided to ‘seed’ the best players through the championship draw in handicap tournaments so that the players in each class shall be separated as far as possible one from another.” The idea was to sow the best players throughout the tournament field. Wimbledon, for its part, gave defending champions free passage to the final match until 1922. To this day, organizers refer to its tournament grid as a “draw,” not a “bracket.”
The NCAA Tournament began in 1939 with eight teams, arranged in two regional brackets. As the field gradually expanded, public interest grew, and the mainstreaming of the plain paper photocopier made bracketology as we know it more plausible. But it would have been awkward: The tournament in the late 1950s included 23 teams and nine byes, and as sportswriter Steve Rushin notes in a 2009 article for the ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia, UCLA’s dominance of the tournament in the 1960s and ’70s rendered prognostication uninteresting. The end of the Bruins’ reign coincided, he points out, with the tournament’s 1975 expansion to 32 teams, and in 1977 a Staten Island bar started one of the first NCAA Tournament pools. The 1985 expansion to 64 teams turned the event into a marathon and gave underdogs more of an opportunity to advance through at least the early rounds.