How the birth of the selection show helped make Selection Sunday into an event
Before America's infatuation with March Madness fully blossomed, former Michigan coach Bill Frieder remembers a simpler Selection Sunday.
A member of the selection committee would call the athletic directors of every NCAA tournament team to inform them their school made the field and provide details on their site and draw. Announcer Dick Enberg would often hastily reveal the four No. 1 seeds at the end of NBC's final regular season broadcast the Sunday before the NCAA tournament began, but the most of the public didn't see the entire bracket until it appeared in the newspaper the following morning.
"There wasn't the same commotion and you certainly didn't have Bracketology or anything like that," Frieder said with a chuckle. "You would just wait until that day, you'd get a phone call and then it would get published the next morning by the Associated Press or something. It was just kind of a routine thing back then. Like going home and checking a score."
The tenor of Selection Sunday changed forever in 1982 when a group of CBS and NCAA executives brainstormed about how to capitalize on college basketball's growing popularity and concocted the idea of televising the unveiling of the brackets. What seems like a no-brainer concept now was revolutionary at the time and helped make words like "bubble" and "RPI" part of our sporting lexicon.
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More people watch the selection show each year than any regular season college basketball game or many NCAA tournament games. The show serves as the gateway into the three weeks every year when college basketball rises from niche sport to national obsession.
"The selection show is unique," said Bob Matina, director of the selection show for CBS. "You spend most of that hour looking at a graphic. I mean, that's what we're really doing. You have the team reaction shots and the conversation with the committee chair, but in its essence, it's a one-hour show looking at a graphic. But it certainly holds up, doesn't it?"
The birth of the selection show would have come a few years sooner had former NCAA executive vice president Tom Jernstedt gotten his way. He remembers urging TV executives to consider revealing the brackets live on air once the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1975 and 40 teams in 1979, but networks were unsure whether it would be logistically feasible and whether there would be sufficient viewership.
"We thought it would be of interest to the viewers more than the TV networks did at the time," said Jernstedt, who worked at the NCAA from 1972 to 2010. "We thought the tournament had grown to the point where there would be national interest and it could be a good television show. We didn't get into arguments about it, but we were eager to get it on."
The turning point in Jernstedt's quest was the massive interest in the 1979 national title game pitting Magic Johnson against Larry Bird.
Most basketball fans hadn't seen Bird play prior to that night since his Indiana State team had only been on national TV three times that season. Nearly two out of five people watching television that night tuned into the NBC telecast to catch a glimpse of the two blossoming superstars, producing a 24.1 rating that hasn't been eclipsed by any basketball game before or since.
The buzz over that championship game persuaded CBS Sports executive producer Kevin O'Malley to urge his bosses to bid for the rights to televise the NCAA tournament when NBC allowed its deal to expire in 1981. Not only did CBS offer a record price of $48 million, the network also agreed to air five more NCAA tournament games than NBC had and to develop the concept of a live selection show.
"We wanted to make the release of the bracket an event," said former CBS executive Len DeLuca, who worked at the network from 1980-1996. "That meant no more members of the committee calling coaches and saying, 'Hey, you're going to Provo! You're playing Army!" We said, no, let's do this live. There's so much speculation. There's so much angst over why the committee did this or why they did that. We think we can build a show around that."
The men most responsible for turning an intriguing concept into a viable TV program were O'Malley, Jernstedt and 1982 selection committee chairman Dave Gavitt. They hatched a plan for the first selection show in 1982 that CBS hasn't deviated much from even 32 years later.
Upon receiving the bracket via fax from the selection committee less than an hour before airtime, the CBS crew scrambled to prepare graphics for the first show. Host Gary Bender then took viewers through the brackets, with analysts sprinkling in thoughts about the seedings, snubs and enticing matchups.
The first broadcast featured live reaction shots from West Virginia and Fresno State as their names appeared similar to the dozens viewers will see on modern-day selection shows. Gavitt, the committee chairman, also agreed to an exclusive live interview in which he explained how some of the most difficult decisions were made.
"How fortunate were we to deal with Dave Gavitt," DeLuca said. "Other chairs who preceded him and followed him might not have embraced the idea of being grilled after three or four days of very tough work. It took a special person to say, 'OK, this is not going to be the smoke-filled rooms with deals getting cut for who goes where. We're going to explain this."
Although the selection committee chairmen have gotten better about pacing the process of building the bracket so that they can get the finished product to CBS in time for the selection show, there have been a handful of close calls over the year. The committee has sometimes faxed or emailed the bracket as little as 10 or 15 minutes before airtime as a result of unexpected conference tournament results injecting chaos or debates over which teams should make the field or how teams should be seeded running longer than anticipated.
Complicating things in the early years was that some conference tournament title games actually took place either during or after the selection show went on the air. The bracket the committee sent to CBS would have vacant spots that could go to one of several teams, a complexity that added to the challenge of getting the bracket built on time.
"There have been years where they cut it as close as nine or 10 minutes, and we're going, hey, is anybody going to be in the tournament?' longtime selection show host Greg Gumbel said. "There are times when you don't fully get to look at the whole thing, and I feel like saying, 'Uh, let's look at the East and see who is playing there, shall we? Because I'll be damned if I know.' But that's part of the fun of it. Are there times I'm learning about things just as the audience is? In some ways I am."
Watch some early renditions of the selection show, and the first thing that stands out is how little about the formula has changed. The graphics are better, the music is more up-to-date and the suits and hairstyles are less dated, but the process of building tension and drama one portion of the bracket at a time is the same.
CBS builds its graphics ahead of time every year and runs through a mock version of the show the Friday before Selection Sunday, but all the preparation sometimes isn't enough to prevent some harrowing moments on live TV. Matina recalls a show a while back when a computer got hung up as it was supposed to be switching between one bracket and another.
"There's never panic, but there was concern about how long it would take," he said with a chuckle. "It only took about 30 seconds, but when you have a live show on the network, that 30 seconds seemed like an eternity. And of course in the back of your mind, you're thinking, 'What happens if it doesn't come up? What happens if the program went down in the computer?' We have backups and we have backups to backups, but you never really want to go there in that position."
Though the scramble when the bracket arrives can be chaotic and analyzing matchups so quickly can be challenging, CBS is very glad Jernstedt, O'Malley and Gavitt took the time to get an intriguing but undeveloped concept off the ground.
Selection Sunday once meant phone calls from committee members to athletic directors. Now the selection show has become synonymous with the start of one of the most exciting three-week periods of the sporting calendar.
"It's such an important jump-off point for the tournament and this month of college basketball, that I'm not surprised it has become so popular and there's so much interest in it," said Harold Bryant, executive producer and vice president of production at CBS Sports. "There's so much build-up every year. It's a great moment."
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