Before CBS revealed the latter half of the NCAA tournament bracket last March, many teams already knew their fate.
A leaked version of the full bracket surfaced on Twitter midway through the selection show and spread quickly once it became clear it was the real deal.
Pittsburgh discovered it had snagged a No. 10 seed in the East Region when one of its players spotted the news on social media. Notre Dame learned it had received a No. 6 seed in the same region when coach Mike Brey got a text from his son. Saint Mary’s figured out it had been snubbed when one of its team managers scanned the leaked bracket and didn’t find the Gaels.
“[He] looked over at me and said, ‘The bracket’s already out and we’re not in it,'” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett told reporters last March. “The show wasn’t over yet. They hadn’t done the final bracket, but we knew.”
Impatient TV viewers may have appreciated receiving bracket details a few minutes early, but the NCAA and its broadcast partners winced at the leak detracting from their product.
Turner and CBS signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal to broadcast the NCAA tournament in 2010 and announced an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension last year. A key element of the deal was the exclusive rights to unveil the brackets on the selection show, which typically eclipses the ratings for every regular season college basketball game each season.
Calling the leak unfortunate and regrettable last March, the NCAA launched an investigation into how the bracket surfaced early and who was responsible. Spokesman David Worlock would not publicly reveal who was identified as the culprit, but the extra precautions the NCAA is taking this year suggest it believes the leak was not internal and originated from a partner with advance access to the bracket.
“We have always worked closely with our broadcast partners to ensure the confidentiality of the bracket before it is released publicly,” Worlock said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. “We have taken additional measures that we believe will prevent any premature release of information from reoccurring. This includes reducing the number of entities and people who receive the bracket in advance of the Selection Show.”
History suggests the NCAA has done an excellent job because leaks have been uncommon. In fact, only once before last year are bracket details known to have surfaced prior to CBS unveiling them.
Nearly an hour before Greg Gumbel announced to viewers that Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse and Duke earned No. 1 seeds in 2010, someone on a Maryland-themed message board had already confirmed it. An anonymous poster known only as “goterps04” 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,” Jeff Ermann, publisher of InsideMDSports, told Yahoo Sports in 2014. “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.”
In an era of cell phone pics and social media, it’s remarkable leaks like this aren’t more frequent. The NCAA goes to extreme lengths to give CBS the exclusivity it desires, sequestering the 10 selection committee members like jurors in a high-profile trial.
From their arrival at a New York hotel this week until the completion of the 68-team bracket, committee members are instructed not to leave the hotel floor that contains their block of rooms. Meals arrive via room service and a security guard stands watch at the elevator from morning until night to keep the occasional curious visitor away.
Access to the conference room where the bracket is assembled is limited to NCAA employees, a handful of hotel staffers and a CBS camera crew. Before any outsiders enter, committee members close their computer screens and turn the papers on their tables face down.
The risk of bracket details spilling out prematurely was higher than usual last year because CBS doubled the length of the selection show to two hours and dragged out the unveiling of the full bracket interminably.
Having received considerable backlash over that decision, CBS is shortening this year’s show to 90 minutes. The network also intends to alter the show’s format by revealing the entire bracket in the first 30-40 minutes rather than interspersing picks and in-depth analysis after each of the four regions is unveiled.
“We felt like it would be a more efficient show if we tightened it up, revealed the bracket earlier and then did more of the discussion on the back end,” said Harold Bryant, Executive Producer and SVP, Production, CBS Sports. “We wanted to improve the quality of the show and provide the best show possible for the viewer.”
While Bryant declined comment on last year’s leak and its impact on the selection show, the answer to that question is pretty obvious. The very fabric of the selection show is rooted in being the first to reveal the NCAA tournament draw to the public and capturing the surprise, jubilation or disappointment of the teams themselves.
By reducing the number of people and entities who have advance access to this year’s bracket, the NCAA is hoping to diminish the risk of another similar leak this Sunday.
The bracket only surfaced on social media a few minutes early last year, but to the NCAA and its broadcast partners, those few minutes are everything.
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