Formats Unpacked: Sports Brackets

How a sport format has been used to decide who is the best at everything


If you’re a regular here you’ll know that us folk at Storythings are obsessed with content formats. It goes back to the many years we spent at the BBC. When you have airspace to fill 24/7 you can’t come up with new content ideas every hour. You come up with repeatable creative ideas and use talent on rotation. This is format thinking.

The first thing we do with new clients is run a content audit and look at format opportunities. This enables us to reduce costs, simplify workflow across all content output and free up cognitive space to concentrate on making sure the formats get the attention they deserve. When you get formats right you become part of your audience’s life.

So, if you work in comms and you don’t think in formats ask yourself the following questions:

Workflow - what is the cost of switching workflow for each new piece of content?

Idea generation - what is the cost of generating new ideas for each new piece of content?

Talent - what is the cost of sourcing talent for each new piece of content?

Audience attention - what is the cost of familiarising your audience with each new piece of content?

Cognitive switching - what is the cognitive cost of switching your thinking for each piece of content?

OK. On to today’s unpacking. It’s related to basketball (imagine what chaos would ensue if new rules for basketball had to be developed for each new game). Doing the unpacking is our very own Grace Dobush, editor for the ReThink Quarterly, a publication we produce for ADP.

Over to Grace…

What is it?

What’s the format?

It’s a visual representation of the men’s college basketball teams competing to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship each March. The 64 teams are sorted by U.S. regional division. A win in the first round this week moves a team on to the second round, then the Sweet 16, the Elite 8 and finally to the Final 4 before the big championship game.

The name “bracket” comes from the use of [ ] and { } in the design of typewritten brackets, according to Slate. The first NCAA championship in 1939 had a bracket with eight teams in a single-elimination tournament, but the earliest known bracket was created for a chess competition in 1851 in London.

 What’s the magic that makes it special?

The big March Madness bracket we know today was born when the NCAA tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1975 and then to 64 teams in 1985 — nice round numbers for an evenly balanced bracket. The internet made it even easier for people to save and share brackets: More than a third of all Americans fill out a March Madness bracket each year.

Even if you care not at all about the NCAA, if you live in the U.S., it’s quite likely that you’ve paid $5 to enter a winner-takes-all office competition. The odds of picking the perfect bracket, even if you know a bit about basketball, are about 1 in 120 billion.

With the advent of the internet, the bracket has taken off as a format outside of the world of sports. People create brackets for literally anything: the hottest Drake song, the most likely next pope, the best character on The Office. Media outlets and brands know that brackets are awesome for engagement: People love to fight over who they think should win the title of best Cincinnati beer, best brewery in Cleveland or best cheeseburger in Evansville

Favourite Episode

Rangers at Katmai National Park & Preserve in Alaska put together a Fat Bear Week bracket every October. The promotion raises awareness for the importance of bears getting chonky enough to survive winter hibernation, during which they lose up to one-third of their body weight. Visitors can vote on their favorites in the Fat Bear Week bracket, which include biographies and photos of the bears pre-season and pre-hibernation. The 2022 Fat Bear Week bracket garnered more than 1 million votes, and the winner was Bear 747, who was estimated as weighing much as 1,400 pounds (636 kg). A real champion.

Thanks Grace.

Whilst we Brits don’t get quite as excited by the NCAA championship as our US friends, there are some things we’re very passionate about - like chocolate. Let me introduce you to Richard Osman’s World Cup Of Everything. Richard is a TV host, best selling author and has produced some of the UK’s best TV formats. He was also responsible for determining the nation’s favourite chocolate bar (amongst other things) using the bracket format on Twitter. His book is full of interactive games using the bracket format that will help you settle household arguments about the greatest biscuits, sitcoms, sweets, Christmas movies, and more.

Thanks for reading. Tell me what formats you’re loving in the comments and get in touch if you’d like to unpack one. And if you haven’t already, subscribe to and the .


Join the conversation

or to participate.