ESPN “revealed” the women’s NCAA tournament bracket twice Monday: first accidentally around 3 p.m. ET, then again two hours later on an impromptu program in reaction to the error.
And all of that came before the network’s scheduled 7 p.m. selection special. “The good news is, this hour, we’ve already seen the bracket,” host Maria Taylor said at the top of that primetime show. “Now we get to break it down.”
Blake DuDonis appeared to be the first person to share ESPN’s error made during an afternoon Bracketology re-air. He quickly posted photos on Twitter of the women’s matchups being shown along the channel’s bottom bar as well as a column on the right side of the screen, presumably where the men’s pairings (announced a night earlier) were supposed to be.
“In working with the NCAA to prepare for tonight’s Women’s Selection Special we received the bracket, similar to years past,” ESPN said in a statement. “In the midst of our preparation, the bracket was mistakenly posted on ESPNU. We deeply regret the error and extend our apology to the NCAA and the women’s basketball community. We will conduct a thorough review of our process to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.”
What occurred behind-the-scenes leading up to the graphics mixup largely remains a mystery. Also a bit of a mystery: why ESPN and the NCAA agreed to add an impromptu 5 p.m. bracket reveal show and turn the 7 p.m. special into more of a bracket breakdown. A decision seemingly made to limit the damage only added more chaos.
In 2016, the men’s basketball bracket leaked during the selection show in what at the time felt like a protest of a lengthened format rather than a screw-up. The broadcast then opted not to mention the leak, opening up alternate timelines for fans discussing the full bracket online while others waited to see it revealed on TV.
This time, everything blended together in a whirlwind afternoon of confused reactions.
Many programs canceled their watch parties after hearing that ESPN was discussing the brackets early, including Princeton. The Tigers still managed to gather as a team for the 5 p.m. show, though, watching from empty stands with phones held aloft in anticipation of the school’s name being called.
At the top of the unplanned presentation, Taylor—a rising talent within the company who just appeared on Good Morning America (and who has a documented obsession for detail)—read the aforementioned statement. On-air she and a trio of analysts did well to keep the show loose, thanking the teams that were able to send in reaction shots in real-time and not hiding from the unfortunate circumstances.
There was only one awkward moment coming back from a commercial, when viewers could hear someone off-screen interrupting Taylor’s re-join. “Stop,” the voice said. “Look at the screen. Read that. Go. That’s what you need to read on your screen right now.” It was a statement from the NCAA, expressing its regret for the network’s “technical error.”
“Ooh, I can’t wait until we get to the games,” Taylor said moments later.
An hour later, the same quartet was back on the air. At that point, at least one team still seemed to be in the dark about its seed and matchup. Fordham women’s basketball coach Stephanie Gaitley reportedly confiscated players’ phones during a Sunday workout to maintain the suspense. “We’re good at keeping secrets (unlike some people), so our players will be genuinely surprised at 7 PM!” the team tweeted.
ESPN’s 7 p.m. special featured new interviews and reaction shots, but also had a largely redundant interview with committee chair Rhonda Lundin Bennett and some of the same clips shown two hours earlier.
Midway through the show, Fordham’s wait ended fittingly. At 7:23 eastern, a cheer rose through the school’s Rose Hill Gymnasium. A couple onlookers noticed first, followed by a pair of players, half the team, and finally everyone in attendance. Because ESPN had already announced the bracket, it was running a ticker of the matchup details on the edge of its telecast. As a result, five minutes before the analysts turned their attention to the bottom-half of the Portland region, where No. 14 Fordham will face No. 3 Syracuse, the graphics had stolen the show one last time.