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Method Behind March Madness: Why and How Americans Engage With the NCAA Basketball Tournament

2 minute read | March 2017

March is a time when names are made, hearts are broken and dreams of even the smallest collegiate participant can come true. The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament grabs the attention of the most casual sports fans who have invested time and strategy filling out a 64-team single elimination bracket to compete with family, friends, co-workers or complete strangers for bragging rights and sometimes a little spending money.  

A recent Nielsen study found that nearly one-third of the U.S. television audience watched at least six minutes of the tournament last year. The 73 telecasts in 2016 cumulatively reached more than 97 million people. Recognizing the opportunity to reach a large, educated and affluent audience, advertisers spent approximately $910 million on March Madness commercials in 2016.

Most March Madness bracket participants (71%) say they watch games at home, 12% watch at a bar, restaurant or other public location, and 24% use a computer to check scores, according to a Nielsen Sports FanTrender survey.

When it comes to filling out a bracket, the study found that more than half of participants say they are between the ages of 25 and 54; however, teens and seniors are also heavily involved in the madness. With collegiate teams making up the bracket, it’s not that surprising that nearly half of those who compete in a March Madness pool hold a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree.

So what is the motivation behind the madness? Completing a tournament bracket is largely a social activity. More than half of participants compete against family and friends, and nearly one-third take part in a pool with co-workers. Social camaraderie is the top cited reason for filling out a bracket, but the lure of winning money from those friends and co-workers is closely behind.

Strategies for filling out a March Madness brackets vary widely from record-based statistics and intuition to team colors and mascots. Regardless of strategy, the odds of a perfect bracket are long. So long in fact there is no record of someone getting it 100% right.

More Nielsen Sports insights on NCAA basketball and other sports may be found in the Year in Sports Media Report 2016.


The insights in this article were derived from:

  • Nielsen National TV Toolbox; March 15 – April 4, 2016; NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Live Game Telecasts on CBS, TBS, TNT, Tru TV; Persons 2+; Live+SD Viewing; 6 Minute Reach Qualifier; 75% Sample Unification
  • Nielsen FanTrender Survey, cumulative 27 weeks through April 2016
  • Nielsen Ad Intel; NCAA Men’s Basketball Division 1 Tournament Games; 3/15/16 – 4/4/16; Cable TV, Network TV, Spot TV

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