History of March Madness

Morgan Wolf

History of March Madness

March Madness is a term that has become synonymous with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, capturing the essence of the intense and exhilarating atmosphere surrounding the event. 

This blog post delves into the history of March Madness, tracing its origins, evolution, and impact on the world of college basketball. 

From its humble beginnings to its current status as a cultural phenomenon, March Madness has captivated fans, created lasting memories, and left an indelible mark on the sport. So, let’s get started now. 

What Is March Madness?

March Madness is a term commonly used to describe the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. It refers to the intense and exhilarating atmosphere that surrounds the tournament, characterized by high-stakes competition, upsets, and the quest for a national championship. 

March Madness has become synonymous with college basketball and has captivated fans and sports enthusiasts for decades.

The Birth of March Madness

The Birth of March Madness

Source: latimes.com

The concept of March Madness can be traced back to the early days of college basketball. The term itself was coined by Henry V. Porter, a high school basketball coach, in an essay he wrote in 1939. 

Porter used the term to describe the excitement and unpredictability of the Illinois High School Boys Basketball Championship. Little did he know that his words would shape the future of college basketball.

The Brainchild of Harold Olsen in the Context of March Madness

Harold Olsen, a visionary and highly respected figure in college basketball, made significant contributions to the development of March Madness. As the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes from 1922 to 1946, Olsen recognized the need for a national postseason tournament to crown the true champion of college basketball.

The Early Landscape of College Basketball

In the early 1940s, college basketball lacked a centralized championship event that could bring together teams from different conferences and regions. The Helms Athletic Foundation awarded a mythical national championship based on a subjective ranking system, but there was no definitive tournament to determine the best team on the court.

Olsen’s Proposal for a National Tournament:

Seeing the potential for a more inclusive and exciting postseason, Harold Olsen proposed the idea of a national tournament that would bring together the best teams from across the country. He envisioned a tournament that would provide a level playing field for all teams, regardless of their conference affiliations.

Laying the Foundation for the NCAA Tournament:

Olsen’s proposal laid the groundwork for what would later become the NCAA tournament. His vision resonated with other coaches and athletic directors, sparking discussions and garnering support for the concept of a national postseason tournament. 

The idea gained momentum, and in 1939, the NCAA officially approved the inaugural NCAA Basketball Championship, which would eventually evolve into March Madness.

The First NCAA Tournament and Its Impact

In 1939, the first NCAA Basketball Championship took place with just eight teams participating. The University of Oregon emerged as the inaugural champion. While the tournament was modest in scale compared to the spectacle it would become, it marked a significant step towards the realization of Olsen’s vision for a national tournament.

Olsen’s Enduring Legacy

Harold Olsen’s contribution to the development of March Madness cannot be overstated. His foresight and determination to create a fair and exciting postseason tournament laid the foundation for the tournament’s growth and success. 

Today, the NCAA tournament stands as one of the most-watched and celebrated sporting events in the United States, captivating millions of fans each year.

The Expansion and Evolution of March Madness

The Expansion and Evolution of March Madness

Throughout its history, March Madness has experienced notable expansion and evolution. The tournament has continuously adapted to meet the growing interest and demand for college basketball, resulting in an even more thrilling and competitive event. 

Let’s explore the key phases and developments in the expansion and evolution of March Madness.

Early Years and Limited Participation

In its early years, March Madness featured a limited number of teams competing for the national championship. The inaugural tournament took place in 1939 with only eight teams vying for the title. 

The field gradually expanded, but the tournament remained relatively exclusive, featuring primarily conference champions and a few at-large teams.

The Introduction of the 64-Team Format

One of the most significant milestones in the evolution of March Madness occurred in 1985 when the tournament expanded to include 64 teams. This expansion marked a substantial shift in the format and structure of the tournament, allowing for more teams to participate and enhancing the level of competition.

The expansion to 64 teams introduced the concept of four regions: East, West, Midwest, and South. Each region consists of 16 teams, creating a balanced and competitive bracket. This format, commonly referred to as the “Big Dance,” has remained in place ever since, captivating fans with its intense matchups and potential for upsets.

The “First Four” and the Expansion to 68 Teams

In 2011, the tournament experienced another significant expansion with the introduction of the “First Four.” The First Four consists of four play-in games that determine the final spots in the field of 64 teams. This expansion increased the total number of participating teams to 68.

The inclusion of the First Four not only provided additional opportunities for teams to compete in the tournament but also added an extra layer of excitement and anticipation to the opening rounds. The play-in games became a prelude to the main event, sparking debates and discussions among fans and analysts.

Impacts of Expansion: More Opportunities and Greater Drama

The expansion of March Madness has had several significant impacts on the tournament. First and foremost, it has allowed more teams from diverse conferences and regions to participate in the event. 

Previously overlooked or underrepresented teams now have a chance to showcase their skills on a national stage, fostering increased competitiveness and unpredictability.

The expanded tournament format has also amplified the drama and excitement of the tournament. With more teams involved, the potential for upsets and Cinderella stories has increased. 

The underdog teams, often labeled as “Bracket Busters,” have become a beloved aspect of March Madness, capturing the hearts of fans and providing thrilling moments.

The Expansion of Media Coverage and Fan Engagement

The expansion and evolution of March Madness have coincided with advancements in media coverage and fan engagement. The tournament’s popularity has soared, attracting a broader audience and generating increased attention from media outlets. 

Television networks now provide extensive coverage of the tournament, broadcasting games across the country and allowing fans to experience the excitement from the comfort of their homes.

Online bracket challenges, live streaming options, and interactive discussions on social media platforms have further enhanced the tournament experience, connecting fans from all corners of the globe and amplifying the buzz surrounding the games.

Historical Significance

March Madness holds a significant place in the history of college basketball. It has evolved into the pinnacle event of the season, captivating millions of viewers and generating immense interest across the nation. 

The tournament’s historical significance can be explored through various aspects, including its impact on the sport, its role in shaping basketball legends, and its ability to unite fans and communities.

The Rise of March Madness

The emergence of March Madness as the premier event in college basketball can be attributed to several factors. One key aspect is the tournament’s ability to capture the attention of both avid fans and casual observers. 

The format of single-elimination games, where teams compete for survival, adds an element of urgency and drama that keeps audiences engaged. Moreover, March Madness has provided a platform for teams from diverse backgrounds and conferences to showcase their skills and compete on a national stage. 

Shaping Basketball Legends

March Madness has served as a launchpad for the careers of many basketball legends. The tournament has witnessed extraordinary performances from players who have gone on to have successful professional careers. 

From iconic moments like Christian Laettner’s buzzer-beater in 1992 to the dominance of players like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1979 championship game, March Madness has played a pivotal role in shaping the legacies of these athletes.

March Madness has also provided a stage for legendary coaches to make their mark in the sport. The tournament has seen coaching masterminds like John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, and Dean Smith guide their teams to multiple championships, solidifying their status as coaching legends. 

Uniting Fans and Communities

March Madness has the unique ability to bring together fans from all walks of life, creating a sense of unity and shared passion. The tournament transcends regional loyalties, as fans rally behind their favorite teams or adopt underdog teams as their own. 

It has become a shared experience that fosters camaraderie and friendly competition among fans, whether it’s through office pools, watch parties, or spirited discussions about bracket predictions.

Furthermore, the impact of March Madness extends beyond individual fans. The tournament has the power to bring communities together, as local pride and support for college teams intensify during the tournament. Cities and campuses come alive with a sense of excitement and energy, fostering a collective spirit that unites residents and students.

The Bracketology Phenomenon of March Madness

March Madness brings with it a unique and thrilling aspect: the creation and filling out of tournament brackets. This process, known as Bracketology, has evolved into a phenomenon of its own, captivating fans, analysts, and casual observers alike. 

It has become an integral part of the March Madness experience, adding an extra layer of excitement and engagement to the tournament.

Predicting the outcomes of each game and filling out brackets has become a popular activity leading up to March Madness. Fans eagerly analyze team performances, player matchups, and statistical trends to make informed predictions. 

Analysts and experts offer their insights and recommendations, helping fans navigate the intricate web of possibilities. Even casual observers, who may not closely follow college basketball, often join in the fun by participating in office pools or online bracket challenges.

The unpredictability of March Madness is what makes Bracketology so enticing. Upsets are a common occurrence, and even the most knowledgeable experts can be taken by surprise. It is this element of uncertainty that adds a sense of thrill and anticipation to filling out brackets.

Cultural Impact and Economic Influence of March Madness

March Madness has had a profound cultural impact, extending far beyond the realm of sports. It has become a shared experience that brings people from diverse backgrounds together, fostering a sense of camaraderie and community. 

The tournament has become a cultural phenomenon, shaping traditions, conversations, and social gatherings.

Office Pools and Bracket Challenges

One of the most notable cultural aspects of March Madness is the tradition of office pools and bracket challenges. These friendly competitions allow colleagues, friends, and even strangers to come together and engage in the excitement of predicting tournament outcomes. 

Office pools encourage friendly rivalries, camaraderie, and spirited discussions about teams, players, and game strategies. The filling out of brackets has become a popular activity, igniting conversations and debates among participants.

Viewing Parties and Social Gatherings

March Madness has also popularized the tradition of hosting viewing parties and social gatherings. Friends, families, and fans gather to watch the games, creating an electric atmosphere of anticipation and excitement. 

These gatherings often involve themed decorations, team apparel, and an abundance of food and beverages. The shared experience of cheering for favorite teams, celebrating victories, and commiserating losses fosters a sense of unity and shared passion for the sport.

Water Cooler Conversations and Social Media Engagement

March Madness permeates conversations in workplaces, schools, and social settings. It becomes a topic of discussion around the water cooler, where colleagues share their thoughts on games, upsets, and standout performances. 

Social media platforms buzz with conversations about March Madness, with fans expressing their opinions, sharing highlights, and engaging in playful banter. The tournament provides a common ground for people to connect, regardless of their level of basketball knowledge or fandom.

Economic Influence and Revenue Generation

The economic influence of March Madness is substantial, generating billions of dollars in revenue. Television networks, such as CBS and Turner Sports, pay hefty broadcast rights fees to cover the tournament, reflecting the immense viewership and advertising potential. 

The tournament’s popularity attracts advertisers who seek to capitalize on the captive audience, leading to significant revenue from commercial spots. 

Ticket sales for tournament games, especially for later rounds, contribute to the economic impact, as fans flock to arenas to witness the excitement firsthand. Additionally, merchandise sales of team apparel, collectibles, and memorabilia soar during the tournament, further fueling the economic influence.

Host Cities and Local Businesses

March Madness provides a boost to the economies of the host cities and regions. As the tournament progresses through different rounds, host cities experience an influx of visitors, including fans, teams, media personnel, and event staff. 

This surge in tourism stimulates local businesses, including hotels, restaurants, bars, and retail establishments. The economic benefits extend beyond the tournament itself, as host cities gain exposure and recognition as desirable destinations for future events and tourism.

Memorable Moments and Iconic Performances in March Madness

March Madness has provided a stage for countless unforgettable moments and iconic performances that have left an indelible mark on the history of college basketball. 

These moments have become ingrained in the hearts and minds of fans, serving as lasting testaments to the excitement, drama, and sheer unpredictability of the tournament. Let’s delve into some of the most memorable moments and iconic performances in March Madness.

Cinderella Stories and Upsets

One of the most captivating aspects of March Madness is the emergence of Cinderella stories and the occurrence of monumental upsets. Every year, underdog teams seize the opportunity to shock the college basketball world by defeating highly favored opponents. 

These upsets not only disrupt tournament brackets but also capture the imagination of fans and reinforce the idea that anything is possible in March Madness.

From the historic victory of the 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) Eagles over the 2nd-seeded Georgetown Hoyas in 2013, with their high-flying dunks and energetic style of play, to the stunning upset of the 16th-seeded University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers over the 1st-seeded Virginia Cavaliers in 2018, these moments exemplify the magic of March Madness.

Buzzer-Beaters and Game-Deciding Shots

Few moments in sports rival the excitement and drama of a buzzer-beater shot in March Madness. These clutch performances, where players rise to the occasion and hit game-winning shots as time expires, have become legendary and etched in the tournament’s history.

The “Christian Laettner Shot” is perhaps the most iconic buzzer-beater in March Madness history. In the 1992 East Regional Final between Duke and Kentucky, Laettner received a full-court pass, turned, and hit a jumper at the buzzer to secure a dramatic victory for Duke. 

The shot is not only remembered for its incredible execution but also for the high stakes and intense competition that surrounded it. Another unforgettable buzzer-beater occurred in the 2016 national championship game between Villanova and North Carolina. 

With the score tied in the final seconds, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins received a pass and calmly drained a three-pointer at the buzzer, lifting Villanova to a thrilling victory and cementing his place in March Madness lore.

Individual Dominance and Heroic Performances

March Madness has witnessed numerous individual performances that have been nothing short of extraordinary. These displays of individual brilliance have propelled teams to victory, inspired awe in fans, and solidified the legacies of the players involved.

The performance of Magic Johnson in the 1979 championship game is a prime example. Johnson, playing for Michigan State, recorded a triple-double with 24 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists, leading his team to a memorable victory over Indiana State and earning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.


How did March Madness get its name?

The term “March Madness” was coined by Henry V. Porter, a high school basketball coach, in an essay he wrote in 1939. He used the term to describe the excitement and unpredictability of the Illinois High School Boys Basketball Championship. 

Over time, the term became associated with the NCAA tournament, as the tournament shares a similar atmosphere of intense competition and unpredictability.

When did the NCAA tournament begin?

The NCAA tournament began in 1939 with just eight teams participating. The University of Oregon won the inaugural championship. Since then, the tournament has grown in size and popularity, evolving into the expansive and highly anticipated event we know today.

When did the tournament expand to include more teams?

The NCAA tournament expanded gradually over the years to include more teams. In 1951, the tournament expanded to 16 teams, and in 1975, it expanded to 32 teams. 

The biggest expansion came in 1985 when the field expanded to 64 teams, allowing for more teams to participate and increasing the excitement and drama of the tournament.

What is the significance of the tournament’s single-elimination format?

The single-elimination format of the NCAA tournament adds to its intensity and drama. In this format, teams must win each game to advance, and a loss means elimination from the tournament. 

This creates a sense of urgency and heightened pressure, as every game becomes a do-or-die situation. The format often leads to unexpected upsets and underdog stories, making March Madness a captivating and unpredictable event.

How has March Madness impacted college basketball and the sports world in general?

March Madness has had a profound impact on college basketball and the sports world at large. The tournament has become the pinnacle event of the college basketball season, drawing millions of viewers and generating immense interest and excitement. 

It has become a cultural phenomenon, bringing people together through bracket competitions, office pools, and viewing parties. March Madness also has a significant economic influence, generating billions of dollars in revenue through television contracts, advertising, ticket sales, and merchandise.

End Call

The history of March Madness is one filled with excitement, growth, and cultural significance. From its origin as a term coined by a high school basketball coach to its evolution into a nationwide phenomenon, March Madness has become an integral part of the sports landscape. 

The tournament’s single-elimination format, expansion, and impact on college basketball and the sports world have solidified its place as one of the most highly anticipated and celebrated sporting events in the United States. 

As March Madness continues to captivate fans and create lasting memories, its rich history serves as a testament to the passion, competitiveness, and enduring legacy of college basketball. Best of luck. 

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Morgan Wolf

Journalist with experience covering the intersection of sports with business. Demonstrated expertise in digital, video and social media content covering major sports including soccer, NBA, NFL, MLB, tennis and Olympic sports. But basketball is his passion. Specialties: expert for sports related content management LinkedIn