Sports fans can appreciate spectacle for spectacle’s sake—to a point. The NCAA tournament selection show is worthwhile drama, for fans of many schools the nervous culmination of a season and a chance to find out where they’re going next, and for fans of a small handful, the nailbiting tension of finding out whether they’ll make the tournament at all. But it’s not sports. Despite getting better television ratings than any regular season game, it is, functionally, a recitation of a list of universities. It does not need to take two hours. Last night, to the relief and joy of just about everyone who doesn’t work for CBS or the NCAA, it didn’t.
This thing used to be a half-hour, from its inception until 2002, and that was fine. It’s not like time ever ran out before they finished announcing the bracket. They expanded to an hour, because its popularity made it possible to sell more commercials at high rates, and fans accepted that too—it didn’t seem quite excessive, and allowed for some cursory region analysis and matchup previews, and anyway there’s value in dragging out the drama. But this year’s move to a two-hour show was greeted with derision upon the announcement and groaning upon air, because its status as a bald ad-grab was obvious. We understand that money drives this all, but our cynicism has bounds.
Then, about 50 minutes into the show and two regions in, a savior. What purported to be a complete, leaked bracket started appearing around Twitter, even if no one could quite figure out who patient zero was.
It was met with healthy skepticism, but as the third region was revealed to be accurate, it became clear: this leak was legit. The two-hour selection show had seen its raison d’être detonated in under one hour. And thank fucking goodness.
For fans watching, the leak manifested in joy and schadenfreude; for teams still waiting to see their names, in wariness and relief.
The Michigan Wolverines learned they were in as a bubble team from the phone of a walk-on. The Seton Hall Pirates had an assistant pulling tape on first-round opponent Gonzaga before their pairing had been announced on CBS. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey got a text from his son revealing the Irish’s matchup.
“Nothing’s secure, huh?” Brey said. “That’s great. That is so typical. It’s so typical of college basketball.”
CBS Sports admits it was aware of the leak but claims it didn’t affect the pace of the selection show—though I’d be willing to wager it affected the second-hour ratings.
The NCAA put out a statement:
“We go through great lengths to prevent the tournament field from being revealed early, and the NCAA took its usual measures to protect this from happening. Unfortunately and regrettably, the bracket was revealed prior to our broadcast partners’ having the opportunity to finish unveiling it. We take this matter seriously, and we are looking into it.”
The NCAA does take this seriously, because without the bracket reveal, the selection show is useless. Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg covered the security measures in a story a few years back, and they begin on Wednesday of championship week, when the selection committee begins its sequestration in an Indianapolis hotel. They are accompanied by a small number of NCAA employees, and access to the conference room where the bracket-building is done is restricted to hotel and CBS staffers, though laptops are shut down and notes hidden before those staffers are allowed in. The completed bracket is emailed to CBS a half-hour before the selection show begins, and exists on a password-protected server to which only a small number of employees have access—off-air, those preparing the graphics and highlight packages, and on-air, those preparing to break down the matchups.
Given the timing, it feels like a safe bet that leak came from CBS’s side of things. All it takes is one PA to snag a screenshot and send it to a friend; Twitter can handle the dirty work of dissemination. And we all reaped the benefits. The leaker may well be identified and punished, because CBS and the NCAA have vested financial interests in forcing you to sit on your ass through two hours of commercials to see the completed bracket. But this was an unalloyed victory for viewers and fans—the first pro-consumer development in the history of the selection show required a hero gone rogue.