This clip from ESPN’s pre-NCAA tournament hype demonstrates the cultural power of the Men’s NCAA tournament bracket. Each March brings waves of articles concerned with the potential damage of the games to economic productivity. At the same time, the bracket creates economies of gaming and spectacle around the tournament. In 2010, CBS reached a 14 year, $11 billion dollar deal with the NCAA to broadcast the tournament. And, according to some studies, around 35 million Americans participated in a college basketball office pool this year.These economies are based upon the unpaid labor of collegiate athletes. President Obama’s appearance is a tacit endorsement of the capitalization on this labor by the NCAA, its corporate partners, and fans.
The bracket packages the uncertainty of athletic competition into an aesthetic structure that seems to provide order and predictability. As “March Madness” suggests, unpredictability is the dominant brand of men’s college basketball. The bracket exploits this randomness to create a sense that the tournament is inherently “fair” (in contrast to the perceived illegitimacy of college football’s Bowl Championship Series). At the same time, the bracket offers fans an opportunity to experience the pleasures of risk and speculation by filling out the form as if it were a puzzle. Whether applying knowledge of Kentucky’s interior defense or advancing teams with cat mascots, fans can create a solution according to their own peculiar logic.
This structure is useful for the NCAA’s media partners. ESPN employs a resident “bracketologist,” who offers expert speculation on who will or will not make the “dance.” The schematic of the “bracket” is effective televisuality. Media experts dissect the image and engage in speculation and argument over the results of matchups, even those that have yet to be determined. This infotainment is packaged and presented to fan-consumers.
The bracket is also a spatial metaphor. The “regional” structure and diversity of institutions included map the tournament onto a figure of the nation. Here, President Obama appears in the role of fan, pundit, and speculator, and displays a casual expertise in one of the nation's favorite pasttimes. His regret over selecting the same Final Four as ESPN's Andy Katz, who acts as his prompter here, indicates a reflexive awareness of competition. President Obama is a figurehead, but his submission lends a democratic air to the arbitrariness of the game.