The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which tipped off today, is colloquially known as “March Madness.” Other staples of the 65-team tourney’s unique lingo include “Sweet 16,” “Final Four,” and the “Big Dance.” How and when did these terms originate?
March Madness traces back to Illinois’ statewide high-school basketball tournament, which began in 1908. In 1939, an official with the Illinois High School Association, Henry V. Porter, penned an article called “March Madness” for the organization’s in-house magazine. “A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel,” he wrote. Three years later, he followed up with a poem, “Basketball Ides of March,” which read in part: “A sharp-shooting mite is king tonight/ The Madness of March is running.”
The phrase was confined to Illinois high-school ball until 1982, when CBS broadcaster (and ex-Chicago Daily News sportswriter) Brent Musburger used it during his network’s NCAA tournament coverage. The IHSA, meanwhile, applied to trademark “March Madness” in 1989. The NCAA and IHSA clashed in 1996, when the IHSA sued to stop GTE, an NCAA corporate partner, from distributing a CD-ROM game bearing the March Madness title. The NCAA contended that it had a common-law trademark on the phrase and was thus allowed to license it at will. The 7th Circuit Court sided with the NCAA, but its ruling was vague enough to open the door for future litigation. Rather than endure more rounds in court, the two sides agreed to form the March Madness Athletic Association, a joint holding company. The IHSA controls the name on the high-school level, while the NCAA has a perpetual license to use the phrase in connection with its (much larger) collegiate tournament.
A similar clash occurred in the late 1990s over “Sweet 16,” tourney slang for the third round. CBS commentators started using the phrase in the late 1980s, after the tournament field expanded from 53 to 64 teams. Unfortunately for the NCAA, the phrase (using both “16” and “Sixteen”) was trademarked by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association in 1988, as a handle for its annual championship tournament. Perhaps mindful of the March Madness precedent, however, the KHSAA chose to bargain with the NCAA rather than litigate. The two sides struck a deal similar to the one between the IHSA and the NCAA, splitting control along scholastic-collegiate lines. (The NCAA also owns the trademark to “Elite Eight,” though the exact origins of that phrase are unclear.)
There are some high-school basketball purists who insist that the phrase “Final Four” was first used in connection with Indiana’s legendary annual tournament (which inspired the film Hoosiers). But the official NCAA story is that “Final Four” was coined by a Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter, Ed Chay. In a 1975 article for the Official Collegiate Basketball Guide, Chay wrote that Al McGuire’s Marquette squad “was one of the final four” in the previous year’s tournament. Something about the phrase struck a chord with the NCAA’s marketing folks, and they started capitalizing it as “Final Four” in 1978. It is, of course, now trademarked. (College hockey is stuck with the nickname “Frozen Four” for its national semifinals.)
The origin of “Big Dance” is seemingly lost to history, at least in terms of who first used it as a synonym for March Madness. Nevertheless, the NCAA trademarked the phrase in 2000.