March Madness, then and now: Growing into a behemoth

March Madness doesn't resemble anything like it did in the 1940s and earlier.

Collegiate Images/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

After 76 years, March Madness has become the undisputed king of athletic competitions in the United States. A billion-dollar enterprise that pits 68 teams against each other for three weeks of head-to-head battle, the NCAA men’€™s basketball tournament is unrivaled in both its reach and scope. And it’s getting bigger: Average tournament game viewership last year (10.3 million) was the best number in nearly 20 years. 

But that’s today. Eight decades ago, March Madness resembled nothing like its current iteration. The rules, the expectations, the money –€” nothing was the same back then, almost to an unrecognizable point. Here’s a look back at how far we’€™ve come from those simpler days: 


• There was no "€œbracket"€

The setup of the first tourney in March 1939 was that eight teams would be split between two regions, East (with games played in Philadelphia) and West (San Francisco). The champion from each half would then play each other in the championship game at Patten Gymnasium (home to Northwestern’€™s hoops team) in Evanston, Illinois. The first-ever NCAA tournament game was played in Philly on March 17, 1939, between Villanova and Brown. The hometown Wildcats took a 17-7 lead at the half and cruised to a 42-30 win.

In the finals, the University of Oregon, led by their vertically superior lineup nicknamed "the Tall Firs," defeated Ohio State, 46-33. As we can see from footage of that game — jump ahead to the 7:30 mark — set shots and quick passing ruled the day, but the game was different in myriad other ways. 

• No one cared about the NCAA tournament

The National Invitational Tournament is this era’s second banana to the main feast that is the NCAA tournament, but it wasn’t like that in the late 1930s. The formation of the NIT actually preceded the NCAA tourney by only one year, but that made a lot of difference, apparently, as did the fact that its play was based at Madison Square Garden in New York, the center of the college hoops world at the time. 

Some even flat-out turned down the NCAA when it would come calling. One school that could’ve been a part of that elite eight that christened the very first year of tournament play was Missouri. However, after a rather successful regular-season campaign, the university decided to forego the invite and snub the NCAA’s powers that were. According to The Kansas City Star:

Final Four . . . for four

The school cited concern about lost class time for its players, who would have had to take a train to San Francisco. And the NIT, after all, was the preferred showcase at the time.

But maybe the most quaint element of the decision was the idea that the regular season was what counted.

MU had clobbered Kansas 54-30 in the season finale at Brewer Fieldhouse and was Big Six co-champion with Oklahoma, the first time the Tigers had claimed at least part of a title in 17 years.

"We feel that our basketball season is over," faculty athletics director Sam Shirkey explained at the time, according to Michael Atchison’s book, "True Sons, A Century of Missouri Tigers Basketball." "Our team reached its peak for the Kansas game, and another two weeks would carry on the season too far for our boys."

Translation: The NCAA tournament just wasn’t worth the hassle. 

The eight-team format didn’t even expand again for 12 years. It doubled to 16 teams in 1951, but even then the first true "Final Four" — where two winners of each region play each other for the right to vie for the title — didn’t come into play until the following year. After that, the road to the current-day setup was well underway. 

• The game itself was drastically different

The differences between then and now are almost too numerous to cite. The players at major college programs were almost all white. Offenses were so overly simplified as to be laughable. The rule that every made basket should result in a jump ball to determine possession had only just been repealed — much to James Naismith’s chagrin — so players around the nation were still wrapping their brains around that one. And defensive goaltending wouldn’t be banned for another six years.

The set shot was king in a world without jump shots. If you could imagine the possibility of space flight, then maybe you could imagine the possibiity of a slam dunk.

"When we were in high school, if you took a one-handed shot you’d get benched, unless it was a layup," Mullen recalled. "Nobody shot the one-handed shot.

"It was the end of the era of the little guy. The little guy has to be a genius today to get by." 

• "€œMarch Madness"€ would not exist for decades

Trademarks can be a pretty hilarious thing. One prime example: Heat president Pat Riley has owned several usage trademarks of the phrase "three-peat." His business entity, known as Riles & Company, filed its trademark application back in November 1988, as his Lakers were headed for a third-stright NBA title. Riley didn’t get his three-peat, but he got his Three-Peat™. Alas, that original trademark, filed for use on shirts, jackets, and hats was canceled in 2012, but his trademark filed in 1994 for "collector plates, mugs and tankards" is still active to this day. 

As for "March Madness," it took many decades for its popular usage to take root. It started to become a generally accepted part of the lexicon in the early ’80s, as you’d see it pop up in various newspaper articles here and there, although often in reference to high school hoops.

And though the NCAA incorporated its usage into the tournament throughout the ’80s, the phrase wasn’t trademarked until March 1989. That’s when a sports marketing company named Intersport did so, and they later partnered with the Illinois High School Association (which clamied one of their people coined the term in 1939) to form a joint venture aimed at licensing its usage. As one of the IHSA executives said in 1995, "We’re convinced ‘March Madness’ is our basketball tournament."

The NCAA’s response: "I think if you were to stop 10 people on the street and ask them what ‘March Madness’ is, a lot of them would say it is the NCAA tournament." The IHSA must have agreed, because they soon worked out an extensive licensing deal with the NCAA that was likely quite beneficial to their mutual interests. 

But the NCAA didn’t gain undisputed ownership of the phrase "March Madness" until October 2010, when it quietly paid a smidge over $17 million to Intersport, which had the foresight 25 years ago to trademark it in the first place. (Incidentally, the IHSA still uses "March Madness" because it’s for high school hoops.) 

So as you’re watching this year’s case of March Madness unfold over the next few weeks, think about how this all might’ve looked to spectators at the very first NCAA tournament sites 75 years ago. With all these drastic changes to take into account, they’d probably go a little mad.