Gambling — The real draw of March Madness, and one of major reasons for its popularity. Pregame.com estimates that $12 billion will be wagered on tournament games and brackets this year, much of that betting being illegal. That’s “billion” with a B. And according to the American Gambling Association, sports books operators estimate that only four percent of all bets placed on the NCAA Tournament are actually legal, speaking to the mass amount of individual game bets and bracket pools that many offices or groups of friends hold every year. And yes, the Super Bowl still sees the most bets placed on a single day, but you need only the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament to eclipse it in terms of money put down on the table.
History — Back in the early 1980s, a new, struggling sports cable network — these were in the infant days of ESPN — needed programming to fill the hours and compete with other networks. It found what it was looking for with the NCAA basketball tournament. The bigger networks had bought up the licenses for the later tournament games, like the Final Four and championship game, but these early rounds, plentiful in number and played at odd times of the day, provided the kind of content ESPN needed. It became an instant hit. In a large sense, March Madness allowed ESPN to become ESPN.
Picking games — The brackets are a phenomenom in and of themselves. Teachers pass them out to students for extra credit or, maybe, a gift card. Websites, like ESPN, hold sweepstakes, sometimes for up to $1 million. Some fill out one bracket, some fill out 10. Hundreds of millions of brackets will be filled out, and maybe one or two will end up being 100 percent correct. Some pick games based no team color, which name they like better or the mascot. Some let their pets pick for them. Some pick all upsets, others pick all favorites. But just about everybody is picking March Madness for the next three weeks.