How the NCAA prevents bracket details from being leaked before the selection show airs

Jeff Eisenberg
March 12, 2014
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College basketball fans eager to learn whether their favorite teams made the 2010 NCAA tournament didn't have to wait for CBS to unveil the bracket.

Someone on a Maryland-themed message board revealed key details before the selection show came on the air that year.

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About 45 minutes before CBS host Greg Gumbel announced to viewers that Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse and Duke had each earned No. 1 seeds, an anonymous poster known only as "goterps04" had already confirmed it. The poster also disclosed who the four No. 2 seeds were, which bubble teams had made or missed the cut and every detail of Maryland's draw, from its site, to its seed, to its first- and second-round opponents.

"At first I wasn't sure there was anything to it, but he had a lot of things that you couldn't have guessed," said Jeff Ermann, publisher of InsideMDSports. "There was clearly a leak somewhere along the line. At that time, we were loosely affiliated with ESPN and I got some emails from them and I think from CBS too. They weren't too thrilled with it. I think they were trying to locate the leak, but I declined because we don't disclose information about individual users."

In a no-secrets era of cell phone cameras, social media and anonymous sources, it's remarkable leaks like this aren't more common leading up to the airing of the selection show. The NCAA goes to great lengths to protect the integrity of its process and ensure CBS has the exclusivity it desires, sequestering selection committee members as though they were jurors in a high-profile trial.

Once they arrive in their rooms at the Conrad Hotel in Indianapolis on Wednesday afternoon, the 10 members of the selection committee don't leave the hotel's 18th floor until they've chosen the 68 teams who will make this year's NCAA tournament.

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A security guard stands watch at the elevator all hours of the day and night to keep curious visitors away. All meals come via room service and are served in a hotel meeting room. Committee members are discouraged from using their cellphones and calls to their room phones are sent directly into a messaging system.

The only other people who have access to the 18th floor conference room where the selection committee assembles the bracket are a few hand-picked NCAA employees, a handful of hotel staffers and a CBS camera crew. Before the hotel staffers can restock the drinks and snacks or the CBS crew can come get footage, committee members shut off their monitors and turn the papers on their tables face down.

If the security procedures seem like overkill, consider how much Turner and CBS have invested to obtain the rights to air the NCAA tournament. A key part of the 14-year, $10.8 billion deal signed in 2010 was the exclusive rights to unveil the brackets on the selection show, which eclipses the ratings for every regular season college basketball game every season.

"Obviously our broadcast partners have made a major investment, and part of that is the exclusivity to unveiling the bracket," said David Worlock, the NCAA's Associate Director for Men's Basketball. "If it were to leak on another network or online, that would be a major mistake on our part. We want to do whatever we can to avoid that. That's why we stress it in the room and try to keep others out of the room."

CBS typically receives the bracket from an NCAA staffer about 30 minutes before the selection show airs, but its staff is just as careful to minimize the chance of leaks once it arrives. The email with the bracket is password-protected and only a limited number of on-air and behind-the-scenes employees have access.    

"We have to be that tight," said Harold Bryant, executive producer and vice president of production at CBS Sports. "Especially nowadays, it's such an information world and it's so immediate. Our security antennas are up even more just to make sure we keep everything confidential until it's time to be revealed."

In the 32 years since the selection show launched, only once has another national media outlet managed to reveal any details about the bracket before CBS did.

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Since NCAA staffers used to hand out copies of the completed bracket to reporters while the selection show was on the air, former ABC production assistant Tony Tortorici instructed a runner to fax the 1989 pairings to the network's New York studios as quickly as possible. The runner was so efficient that ABC was able to read off two brackets over the air before CBS had gotten to them on its selection show.

"While CBS was on the air doing maybe the East bracket, we were on the air doing the West bracket," Tortorici said with a chuckle. "Honestly, I don't think we really knew we were beating them to the punch on their own show, We were just trying to be as timely as we could.

"At the time, we had once-a-week meetings with our producers, management and the president of the company. I remember walking into the meeting and there being a lot of comments, a lot of 'good job,' 'atta-boy' and that kind of thing."

Aside from ABC's one-year coup, the biggest threat to CBS' exclusivity has been the selection show ESPN aired opposite the official one throughout the 1990s.

Though it had to get the brackets second-hand after CBS unveiled them, ESPN would simply reveal them a minute or two later and hope that the audience preferred its analysis. One year ESPN went so far as to start its show at 6:27 p.m. in hopes that the three-minute head start would dissuade viewers from switching over to CBS.

ESPN syphoned viewers away from CBS until 2001 when the network agreed to stop airing a competing selection show in return for the right to build a set at the Final Four each year. Since then, SportsCenter has shared the brackets second-hand during the 6 p.m. hour and then ESPN has aired an analysis-heavy show following the CBS selection show.

"For 10 years, the big fight was always about ESPN going head-to-head with us," said Len DeLuca, who served as vice president of programming at CBS before leaving for ESPN in 2006. "Who's got the better analysis? Is it Digger and Dick? Is it Greg Gumbel, Pat O'Brien and the analysts CBS had? That fight raged from 1990 to 2000."

With the other networks no longer competing to be first on Selection Sunday, CBS has strengthened its position as the first place fans can turn to find out who their favorite teams will play.

In the nine years Worlock has been in his current role at the NCAA, he says the security guards standing watch have seldom had to do more than turn back a curious fan or two. A quick annual reminder from the selection committee chairman to other members has also typically been more than sufficient to keep their blabbing to a minimum.

"I don't think it would occur to any of us to share that information before it airs," said West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, a member of the 2014 selection committee. "It's pretty important to protect for the integrity of the process. I can't imagine any of us would ever compromise that."

Considering the security procedures in place, the sincerity of the selection committee members and the amount CBS has at stake, it makes it even more curious that those details from the 2010 bracket appeared on the Maryland message board.

Ermann recalls word of the leak spread quickly via social media once fans became aware the information had turned out to be credible.

"It was a big traffic day for the site," Ermann said. "To have a random message board poster with that kind of information is definitely unique."

CBS and the NCAA hope so. They're working hard to keep incidents like that a rarity.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!