Why Is it Called March Madness?

(Last Updated On: March 22, 2022)

If you follow basketball at all you’re looking at March Madness brackets within your friend group or something. Either that, or you don’t follow basketball and your friend group or office just put together a different bracket for the month and called it March Madness-adjacent. Either way “March Madness” is something everyone–sports nut or not–hears the second the month ticks over to three. So… why is it called March Madness?

Further Reading: 10 Memorable Moments in March Madness History

What Is March Madness Anyway?

March Madness is specific to collegiate basketball, and it runs from around the middle of March through the early phases of April. Nothing too special there, it’s just when the NCAA holds the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The games go for three weekends, in which schools field 68 teams (68 in men’s basketball and 68 in women’s though). They compete in single-elimination games until only one is left. Things get pared from 68 to 16 in week one, then to eight the next, and four in the final weekend. 

Of the 68 bids to the tournament, 32 are “automatic bids,” which are awarded to the winners of their respective conference championships. The last 36 are awarded their bids from a selection committee. It’s a group of 12 people that hail throughout Division I men’s/women’s athletics and each member is appointed for five years

The selection process used to be based on a system called RPI, but it was ditched in 2018 for the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET). It’s based on results, schedule strength, location, score margins, offensive/defensive efficiency, as well as the quality of wins or losses sustained. Each team is awarded a seed, and throughout March Madness high-seeded teams will play the lower seeded ones until upsets begin–which can throw a wrench at anyone trying to predict brackets.

In case you were wondering, you’re probably not ever going to guess the perfect bracket. If you guess randomly, the probability you get it right is 1 in 9.2 quintillion. Even if you’re good with basketball knowledge, it’s still 1 in 120 billion. A model has been built by Georgia Tech professor Joel Sokol that can push those odds down to between 1 in 10 and 40 billion. Even Sokol thinks this basically means “functionally impossible” though.

Okay, but why is March so mad?

The common narrative for our origin takes us back to Illinois–but it doesn’t take us back to collegiate football. It actually takes us back to high school basketball.

Remember high school? Yeah, we don’t want to either.

In 1908 the Illinois High School Association (they organize sporting events in the state of Illinois, opr) sponsored a statewide tournament that ended up being really popular by 1939. They colloquially called it “March Madness,” and eventually trademarked it in 1989–but the NCAA also used the term starting in 1982. So the IHSA and NCAA came to copyright blows but they agreed to just split the baby and share. 

Why choose the term “March Madness?” Well, really it’s just because people got super excited about it. A guy named Henry Porter coined it in 1939. 


See if you know who is just kinda… there at March Madness here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.

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