March Madness kicks off this weekend with Selection Sunday. What teams will make it to the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament this year? I have no idea, but my fellow hosts of the Jesuitical podcast and I spoke with someone who does: Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s resident “bracketologist.”
Mr. Lunardi is an alumnus of St. Joseph’s University, a Jesuit school in Philadelphia, and now serves as the director of marketing and broadcast services for the athletic department at St. Joe’s. Before last year’s tournament, Zac Davis, Olga Segura and I had the chance to ask him how he makes his bracket picks and how Jesuit education has influenced his career.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is a bracketologist?
Bracketology is connected to March Madness and those bracket pools that we all do in March—for amusement only, of course. I predict what that field is going to be in advance for the TV network, for our game audiences, for coaches and fans and media around the country. And for reasons sometimes passing understanding, it has developed a very large seasonal cult following.
Do you see parallels between people’s devotion to bracketology and religion?
I have learned the hard way that fan is short for fanatic. And if I move a certain team in or out of the field, or too high or too low in the bracket for their liking, I will find that my phone blows up and my Twitter time goes up. But I view that as just the passion of the sport, and that is what drives the whole enterprise.
So what goes into your decision making? Is it more art or science? Are you feeling the momentum and the spirit of the times or is it all facts and stats?
It usually depends on how much sleep I’ve had on that particular day. But understanding the basic math goes something like this: There are 351 Division I basketball playing institutions. The tournament accommodates 68 of them. So that means in any given year, fans in 273 places are going to think I am the anti-Christ. It is just math—and that is what I tell myself. Within the 68 who make it, 32 are automatically entered into the field because they won their conferences. They are called automatic qualifiers. And then there are 36 at-large spots, which they fill with “wild cards.” If you take 351 minus 32, that is 319 left. So what we are really talking about in bracketology is picking 36 from the 319 in advance.
In the beginning, you were doing this for breadcrumbs, right?
I was doing it for free. In fact, in the early years, we were losing money. Because I was a liberal arts graduate, and no one ever told us that making money was important.
A couple of years after, we figured [making money] was a better business plan. We started to do O.K. with it.
Did your Jesuit education inform how you pursued this passion of yours?
In more ways than I can imagine. If I could wave a magic wand, I would put all 28 Jesuit schools in the tournament every year—more accurately, the 19 of them that play Division I.
Jesuit education prepares us to create a greater good or at least to strive to create a greater good. In fact, that is the magis, right? And we can all do that in our walks of life. And I certainly understand that I am working in the toy department of life. I am not saving lives or taking water out of the earth in third world countries. I am counting to 68. I may do it a little better and a little more scientifically than other people, but what I do have is a platform that is pretty broad, at least according to my Twitter.
And I think you can infect whatever your profession is with a level of both fairness and open-minded analytical ability as well as an opportunity to maybe add a little light in people’s lives. I am grateful for the platform and that it can be used to evangelize a little bit about our Jesuit schools. There was one year when it was a 64 team field. Eight of the 64 conveniently were Jesuit schools. And I made sure that the world knew that. And that those schools stood for something more than paying players and making foul shots.
What about Jesuit schools have you seen that affects players differently or any people around the sport in a positive way?
I am going to give an example with both a positive and negative to it. At St. Joe’s a few years ago, we had a student recruitment campaign based around the idea of magis. And, of course, you have to try and put that into a language that its consumable by your audience, which in this case is 17- and 18-year-olds. And we know because we were all that age: They can be kind of unpredictable in what they choose is important on any given day.
We had a star on our team that particular year; his name is Langston Galloway. And Lang was an intern in my office as a communications and marketing major, and he was clearly both a great player and an outstanding student who was going to do more than basketball. So he was in one of the TV ads about when coach asks you for 50 reps and you do 100. That is the magis. And I had a Jesuit tap me on the shoulder and say in somewhat of a less than supportive way, “You know Joe, that is a great commercial, but we all know that is not the magis.” And I said: “Well, actually, Father, respectfully, I think I learned here to disagree with that. I think we all determine what the magis is for ourselves.”
So fast forward about five years, Langston’s now in the N.B.A. making more than all of us combined ever will.
You are still employed, despite having talked back to a Jesuit.
Correct. And it was respectful. And Langston came in to ask for a letter of recommendation for our online M.B.A. program, and I am thinking to myself: This guy just signed a $21 million contract. I am guessing he does not need to worry about his career ladder. And I said, “So, what’s up?” And he said, “Well, you know I am not going to play forever, and when I am done, I want to open rec centers and gyms throughout the South”—where he is from—“for underprivileged communities, and I need to know the business models that will work for that.” And I would say, if that is not the magis, then we are in the wrong enterprise.