Anomalies in Tournament Design: The Madness of March Madness
Tournament design is of crucial importance in competitive sports. The primary goal of effective tournament design is to provide incentives for the participants to maximize their performance both during the tournament and in the time period leading up to the tournament. In spectator sports, a secondary goal of tournament design is to also promote interesting match ups that generate fan interest. Seeded tournaments, in general, promote both goals. Teams or individuals with strong performances leading up to a tournament receive higher seeds which increase their chances of progressing further in the tournament. Furthermore, seeding ensures that the strongest teams or players are most likely to meet in the final rounds of the tournament when fan interest is at its peak. Under some distributions of team or player skill, however, a seeding system can introduce anomalies that could affect incentives. Our analysis of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament uncovers such an anomaly. The seeding system in this tournament gives teams with better success in the regular season more favorable first round match ups, but the tournament is not reseeded as the games progress. Therefore, while higher seeds progress to the 2nd round of the tournament at uniformly higher rates than lower seeds, this relationship breaks down in later rounds. We find that 10th and 11th seeds average more wins and typically progress farther in the tournament than 8th and 9th seeds. This finding violates the intended incentive structure of seeded tournaments.
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