The Midwestern Birthplace of March Madness

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but the NCAA wasn’t trying to be coy when it first used the phrase “March Madness” to describe the organization’s annual postseason tournament.

We now associate “madness” with all things brackets and Cinderellas, but for much of the tournament’s early years, it was already seen as the unworthy cousin to the NIT, the postseason tournament which draws more teams and has a larger national profile.

When the NCAA tournament first launched at the end of the 1938-39 season, it flopped, losing more than $2,000 despite the promotional draw of Oregon’s Tall Firs, the nickname for the squad’s front court. (The team won the first-ever title.) At this point, the nation’s only March Madness was the Illinois High School Association’s tournament. The association had hosted the state’s high school tourney since 1908, and its directors liked to tout a 1939 article in the Illinois Interscholastic magazine that read, “A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.”

The NCAA tourney grew, supplanting the NIT. Unfortunately for the IHSA, trademark proceedings for “March Madness” didn’t begin until 1991, more than a decade after the NCAA first began to see the phrase’s true marketing potential. Legendary announcer Brent Musburger began to use it on-air, and by 1989, when CBS and the NCAA signed a $1 billion deal to broadcast the tournament, March Madness had become big business. The NCAA and IHSA met in court in the mid-90s to hash out their disagreement, and the phrase became a “dual-use term.”

While the NCAA was late to adopt the language by which its tournament is known worldwide, it didn’t make the same mistake with the phrases, “Elite Eight,” “Final Four,” and “And Then There Were Four,” which were all trademarked. Interestingly, the term “Sweet Sixteen,” which applies to the tournament’s last sixteen remaining teams, also didn’t originate with the NCAA, starting with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (which licenses it to the NCAA).

This season’s tournament will be its 78th, and it’s interesting to look back when the NCAA tournament was a still growing tournament instead of a multi-billion juggernaut.

In some circles, the NCAA championship game was a big deal very early on. Horace “Bones” McKinney, who played for a UNC team that lost in the final, 43-40 to Oklahoma State in 1946 at Madison Square Garden, said, “Maybe the final four hadn’t come of age back then, but it couldn’t have been bigger for us. That old Garden was packed with 19,000, and the smoke was so thick I couldn’t even see the upper deck. It was New York, and we were big stuff.”

Big stuff, indeed. That 1946 game was the first title game televised, broadcast to about 500,000 viewers in the New York area over CBS. The first nationally televised final came in 1954—the broadcast rights sold for $7,500—gathered a respectable audience, and the championship game remained a reliable high-ratings Saturday staple for almost two decades.

On January 20, 1968, the sports world was startled to learn just how popular college basketball could be. All of the sudden, it seemed, college basketball was an Event that would fill huge arenas.

Read the story