The craziness is about to crescendo.
The buzz, bets and bracket-picking bragging around the men's NCAA Basketball Championship has always been boisterous, but this year, it's poised to boom more than ever.
The first full day of March Madness tips off Thursday with 64 teams playing 63 edge-of-your-seat, single-elimination games. Along with that on-court action, there will also be ceaseless tournament updates by social media users as well as in-office posturing and Las Vegas betting over which teams will win.
"This is one thing that keeps growing more and more," says David Pemberton, director of specialty games for Caesars Entertainment. "The parties get bigger and bigger out here each year."
On social media, the tournament frenzy has also expanded.
In the 72 hours since Selection Sunday, there have been more than 135,000 tweets using #MarchMadness, according to Twitter. The NCAA Twitter handle — @marchmadness — had 170,000 followers Wednesday evening. At a similar time in 2012, that handle had only about 38,000 followers.
More people than ever are on social media this year, and sports is "a natural subject of discussion" for many of those users, says USA TODAY Publisher Larry Kramer, who created March Madness on Demand while he was president of CBS Digital Media from March 2005 until November 2006. "People love to talk about and argue about sports."
Die-hard basketball fans can dive into the nitty-gritty of team and player details, while the novices can root for a team based on its mascot, its proximity to their hometown or if they know someone who attended that school, says CBS Sports basketball analyst Greg Anthony, who played in the 1990 NCAA tournament as a UNLV point guard.
"The tournament has become an event, much like you'd find with the Olympics," he says. "There is an element of passion that goes along with this."
There is now more opportunity than ever for both the casual and rabid fan to track the games, which will air on CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV, as well as stream online and for mobile devices.
The networks will broadcast more than 200 hours of live game and studio TV coverage, a slight increase from last year. The 2013 NCAA tournament averaged 10.7 million viewers per telecast, up 11% from 2012.
Across online and mobile platforms in 2013, NCAA March Madness Live garnered 49 million live video streams, up 168% vs. 2012. Viewers watched more than 14 million hours of live video in total that year.
The games were first streamed live in 2008.
Consumer attention around the tournament has lured in marketers such as Burger King, Capital One and Coke Zero to sponsor the games.
In terms of TV ad revenue, the NCAA men's basketball tournament edges out the National Football League, as well as the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League to garner the most post-season TV ad revenue, according to ad tracker Kantar Media.
Other businesses — from big-name conglomerates to small-town restaurants — have put on a full-court press to capitalize on the tournament's popularity with promotions linked to bracket picks.
Quicken Loans and Warren Buffett recently made headlines by saying they would team up to give away $1 billion to anyone who can perfectly predict the winner of all the tournament games. The contest is insured by Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway.
The NCAA and its broadcast partners have done some pretty clever branding of its own, notes Kantar Media Chief Research Officer Jon Swallen.
March Madness is "a great brand name," he says, adding that alliterative terms such as "Final Four," "Elite Eight," "Sweet Sixteen and "Selection Sunday" all help to make the sporting event memorable.
Adding to its popularity is the fact that it's in "a great, protected space on the sports calendar," he says.
"Baseball season hasn't started, football is over and professional hockey and basketball playoffs haven't started yet," he says. "It's very easy to focus on this one event without competition from other sports."