In 2016, the American Gaming Association estimated that $9.2 billion dollars would be bet on March Madness – mostly from office pools, where 70 million brackets would be filled out by roughly 40 million Americans. That’s almost 350 tons of paper. It’s also about twice as much money as was bet on Super Bowl 51.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump won’t be joining the fun this year – at least not in public. Trump has decided not to continue Barack Obama’s tradition of filling out the “official” presidential bracket for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. But that isn’t expected to stop the rest of America from betting on the Big Dance. So how did March Madness get so big in the first place?

 

Voice of Harold

Believe it or not, there was a time when the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) was the gold standard of college basketball. The inaugural NIT was in 1938, one year before the National Association of Basketball Coaches held their first tournament – the brainchild of Ohio State head coach Harold Olsen. Teams would often participate in both events; City College of New York ended up as double-champions in 1950, the only team in history to do so.

In 1941, the coaches asked the NCAA (short for National Collegiate Athletic Association) to take over running the tournament, which had already become profitable in its second year. Business started picking up from there; the first televised Tournament game was in 1946, with roughly 500,000 New Yorkers watching Oklahoma A&M beat North Carolina 43-40 in the final at Madison Square Garden. National television followed in 1954.

 

Not In Tournament

It was right around this time when the NCAA started putting the squeeze on the NIT. Officials ruled that all conference champions would have to play in the postseason. That was enough to drop the NIT to secondary status, but the killing blow came in 1970, after Marquette head coach Al McGuire passed up on the Tournament to play in the NIT instead. Marquette won that tourney; the NCAA responded by making their event mandatory if you wanted to play in the postseason.

The Tournament kept growing from there, but it wasn’t until 1973, when they started showing the final game on Monday night, that March Madness really started infecting the nation. Then you had the epic 1979 matchup between Magic Johnson (Michigan State) and Larry Bird (Indiana State). Johnson and the Spartans won 75-64 in front of the largest TV audience college basketball has ever seen.

In 1984-85, the Tournament was expanded to 64 teams, and that format has largely withstood the test of time – there are now four additional “play-in” games, aka the First Four, but everything else is largely intact. The bracket still fits elegantly on a single sheet of paper. If there’s any difference at all to the Tournament, it’s with the players and their level of quality – they’re so good now, you’d think they were paid professionals.