Dick Vitale Well, it's just about my favorite time of year again…March Madness.  I love the games, I love the upsets, I love the drama, and I especially love hearing Dick Vitale's screaming insanity on my TV 24/7. 

As an ode to the season, I decided to take some time and check out something that should be on everyone's minds….online bracket builders.  This is a bit of a divergence from our usual talk of politics and (possibly more important) current events, but I know that this question is burning in everyone's minds:  What is the best website for filling out tournament brackets?

To answer this question, I took a look at some of the major websites that offer brackets and ranked them based on a couple of factors:

  • Ease of registration;
  • Interface;
  • Customization options (i.e. rules and features);
  • Flexibility (having multiple brackets and groups);
  • Extra features (message boards and updates);
  • Prizes. (because some people like to play for more than bragging rights)

Here are my rankings:

1. MSN/Fox Sports College Bracket Challenge

  • The Good:
    • Easy to use interface with different tabs for group standings and your own personal bracket.
    • Easy registration (you can sign up simply by using a hotmail account).
    • You can sign up either as an individual or as part of a group.
    • There's a message board (optimal for heckling and trash talking).
    • Grand prize is a 60" plasma TV.  5 first prizes give you the choice of an Xbox 360 and some accessories.
  • The Not-so-Good:
    • Each person is limited to creating 3 brackets and 3 groups, and you can only enter 1 bracket in each group (honestly, this isn't that much of a turn-off…how many brackets can a person have?)
    • No bracket printing function.  This is disappointing. I like to print my brackets out and flaunt them around so everyone can see how great my picks are going.
    • No email updates.  Honestly, I don't really care about this that much, because I'm so addicted to the games and scores, any updates are just redundant.  But some people might consider this a major drawback.
  • Overall:  This is a really easy to use system with a shnazy layout for the bracket.  It lacks some of the extra features that the CBS system offers, but the easy interface helps it to edge out some competitors.  I give it an A-.

2.  Yahoo Tournament Pick'em '07.

  • The Good:
    • Easy registration;
    • Probably the best bracket display of any of the systems.
    • Bracket is printable in PDF format!!
    • Message boards;
    • You can import picks from other systems;
    • Sign up as a solo or as part of a group;
    • Users can have multiple brackets and be in multiple groups.
  • The Not-So-Good:
    • There are no prizes! 
    • There are no options for group customization.
  • Overall: This is a slick and easy-to-use system that will work for anyone.  The printable PDFs and pick importing are nice bonuses that other systems don't offer.  Overall, though, Yahoo! leaves me wanting some more options to customize the system…and, even though my chances of beating out 10 million people are slim (or none), I also want prizes.  I give it an A-.

3. CBS Sportsline Bracket Challenge. 

  • The Good:
    • This was the only website I found that allows you to customize the points system for your bracket.  When you create a group, you can decide how you want each round to be scored.  There are a variety of systems to choose from, and can help you make things interesting.  You can also write in any extra rules that you want to add.
    • When you create a group, you get a unique URL: http://xyz.mayhem.sportsline.com/brackets.  I think this is super-convenient, and no other system offers this. 
    • CBS lets you get e-reports with your group standings by email or via wireless device.
    • You can edit the look and feel of your bracket to change the colors, and you can have your favorite team highlighted.
    • $10,000 cash prize
    • There's a group message board
    • You can print out group standings via an Excel spreadsheet.
    • Each user can have multiple brackets and enter multiple groups.
  • The Not-So-Good:
    • The interface is a little clumsy, and it actually took a bit of searching to find it on the CBS website.  I'm also not sure if you can print out the bracket as a PDF or not.
    • Registration is annoying because you have to give up personal information like your phone number and address.  I thought this was sort of strange…I mean, is CBS going to call me up and say "Hey! I saw your bracket on our website!  Be sure to watch the next episode of The Young and the Restless!"  I don't think so.
  • Overall: I liked this system because of the customizable functions and the unique URL.  Usually online brackets are very cookie-cutter with no room for personalization.  Unfortunately, these extra features are not enough to make up for the clumsy interface.  I really wanted to rank it #1, but, to be honest, the layout stinks.  I give this system an B+.

4. Facebook Men's Basketball Tournament 2007.

  • The Good:
    • Incredibly easy to use. 
    • Users can enter as many pools and groups they want.
    • Great message board system.
    • Pools can be global (open to everyone), closed (invite only), or secret (no one else except the participants can view it).
    • Grand Prize of $25,000.
    • Mobile Updates/email updates.
  • The Not-So-Good:
    • No print function (still totally a bummer);
    • No customizable rules;
    • In order to participate, you have to sign up for Facebook.  I can see how non-college students/alumni might not want to do this.  However, now Facebook is open to everyone and you can sign up with any kind of email address, and the registration system only requires limited information.  So while the Facebook association might be a drawback to some, it's not as bad as it sounds.  Definitely easier than the CBS registration.
  • Overall:  I love Facebok, so I love this system of pools. Having a pool with all my college buddies adds another level of fun to the game.  But, I'm not sure this would be appropriate for non-college circles, such as office pools.  Also, the system, while super-easy to use, is sort of bare-bones.  College kids already on Facebook should definitely use this this system due to its simplicity, though.I   give it a B+.   

5. ESPN Tournament Challenge.

Ok. This is a tricky one.  In past years, ESPN has had a great system for doing brackets online.  However, I can't even judge this year's system because I can't get past the registration page, which s
eems to be broken.

Also, I had to find this system via Google because I hate the ESPN site in general and can't stand the navigation. In order to overcome this, the ESPN brackets will have to be really fantastic.

Since I can't even get in to the brackets, this system gets an F.  But I'm sure that this is a temporary bug.  I'll update this post later when the brackets are up and running.

Update 3/13/07: I registered for ESPN's Tournament Challenge this morning.  I was very underwhelmed. They've got a pretty barebones system with no features like personalization options or email/mobile updates. There is a bulletin board, and you can print your bracket, but the actual system used for entering your teams is sort of annoying.  The "bracket technology" looks outdated, and each time you roll over a team, a big black box with the team's profile pops up, which gets in the way of seeing other match-ups.  While the team profile can be helpful, it should be optional rather than automatic. I honestly don't need to see every profile for every team in the tournament. And I hate pop-ups.  And I still don't like ESPN's website.  Also, the registration process and the actual bracket entry process are loaded with ads.  I must have been asked 5 times if I wanted to get State Farm Insurance (which I don't).  None of the other websites I checked out loaded their system with annoying ads. Overall, I give the system a C-.

Final Thoughts:  The first four services have done Dickie V proud.  These are a big improvement from past years, when I've been in several bracket pools and found my living room scattered with a bunch of bracket sheets, confusing paper score sheets, highlighters, and other paper bracket necessities.  If you're a pool manager, these online systems are a godsend. 

Happy Bracketing everyone!