While the use of the name "March Madness" in reference to American college basketball playoffs dates back to the 1980s, the term was originally used to describe the Illinois state high school basketball tournament. Though many people are familiar with the college playoffs under the March Madness name, this is actually one of several colloquial names for the NCAA basketball tournament.
The earliest recorded origins of the March Madness name are fairly straightforward. An Illinois High School Association employee named Henry V. Porter is attributed with coining the term "March Madness" when he used it in a professional article in 1939. Whether Porter had heard the phrase somewhere before is not known, but it's clear that he intended to refer to the excitement that surrounds basketball championship games.
The phrase primarily referred to Illinois high-school basketball tournaments until it was used by CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger in 1982. During a broadcast Musburger referred to the NCAA championships as March Madness.
In 1989 the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) applied to trademark the phrase "March Madness" to use exclusively for Illinois high school basketball tournaments. The NCAA continued using the phrase until it prompted a lawsuit in 1996 from the IHSA. The IHSA sued a partner of the NCAA for using the phrase "March Madness" on a promotional CD.
In response to the lawsuit the NCAA claimed that it had a common-law trademark on the phrase "March Madness." The ruling was in favor of the NCAA. In order to avoid any further legal battles, the NCAA and the IHSA agreed to share ownership of the phrase by entering into a joint holding company together called the March Madness Athletic Association. This association ensures that the NCAA has the rights to the phrase when used in conjunction with the collegiate tournament, while the IHSA has the rights to the phrase at the high-school level.
The Big Dance and the Final Four
Other phrases that the NCAA has trademarked for use during collegiate basketball tournaments include "Big Dance," and "Final Four." While the origins of the phrase "Big Dance" to describe the NCAA tournament are unknown, the NCAA trademarked the phrase in 2000.
The phrase "Final Four" was introduced by sportswriter Ed Chay in 1975. After he brought up the phrase in an article to refer to the four finalists in the tournament the year before, the NCAA began to use the phrase in promotional materials, capitalizing the first letter of each word.