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How March Madness Came to Be

Last Updated: March 28, 2022
Poetry, lawsuits, and Brent Musburger? The creative history behind the March Madness nickname is as epic as the upsets that define the NCAA Tournament.

After an exciting first weekend of the 2022 men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, including several upsets by double-digits seeded teams, March Madness is in full swing.

On the men’s side, there are four double-digit seeds left in the Sweet 16. 15 seed St. Peter’s shocked the world by upsetting 2 seed Kentucky in the First Round, and the Peacocks are slated to take on 3 seed Purdue in the East Region semifinals. In the Midwest, 11 seed Iowa and 10 seed Miami are set for a Sweet 16 matchup, and 11 seed Michigan has 2 seed Villanova in the South Region. That is all without mentioning that 8 seed North Carolina knocked off top-seeded, reigning champion Baylor in the Second Round.

March Madness is the only way to describe how the tournament has unfolded so far. We use the term often, but what is its origin story?

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Let’s go to Chicago in 1939 — the year of the first NCAA Tournament.

But we’re not going to the college ranks. Our March Madness journey begins in the mind of an Illinois High School Association official named Henry V. Porter.

Porter, a teacher and basketball coach, wrote an article for the IHSA’s magazine titled “March Madness.” In it, he said:

“A little March madness may complement and contribute to sanity and help keep society on an even keel.”

He also penned a poem titled “Basketball Ides of March,” containing the couplet, “The Madness of March is running. The winged feet fly, the ball sails high. And field goal hunters are gunning.”

March Madness was kept within Illinois’ state borders for decades, and then, the IHSA began licensing the official term in the 1970s. Porter, who was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960, passed away in 1975.

Over the course of the next few years, Brent Musburger — then a reporter at CBS — started to describe the NCAA Tournament as March Madness, and the term began to spread. This went on every year until the 1990s.

Brent Musburger opens for hte 1990 NCAA Tournemnt

In March 1996, the IHSA sued the NCAA to block the entity’s corporate partner GTE from using “March Madness” as a descriptor to market a college basketball CD-ROM game.

Dave Fry, IHSA’s executive director at the time, told the Chicago Tribune in May of that year:

“Call me a naive country-boy educator, but I thought if I owned the trademark to something, I owned the right to it. But that apparently is not quite so, which is pretty frustrating.”

The IHSA and the NCAA reached a compromise, as described by trademark attorney Josh Gerben of Gerben Intellectual Property:

In short, the two sides reached a settlement to share the trademark through their joint March Madness Association LLC, which licensed the term to both the NCAA and IHSA.

That carried on peacefully until the NCAA gained full ownership in 2012.

Up until 2022, the NCAA used March Madness to market the men’s tournament only, despite the organization legally being allowed to use it for the women as well. Last year, the NCAA told the Wall Street Journal that the committee in charge of the women’s tournament chose not to use March Madness, before admitting this was a lie and that the NCAA had denied the committee’s request to use it.

To no one’s surprise, one of the recommendations that the now-famous Kaplan Report made was for the women to be allowed to use March Madness branding. Shortly after, that change was officially made, and in 2022, the women’s tournament has lived up to that name every bit as much as the men’s tournament has.

The madness will continue when Sweet 16 action tips off on the men’s side onThursday. The women’s Sweet 16 starts on Friday.

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