Peter Greczner was not a fan of The Bachelor franchise, which closes its season Monday night, until he started watching with his girlfriend about a year and a half ago. When one of her friends suggested they fill out brackets, as they would for college basketball, he threw himself into research. He eventually got so into it that he found himself watching with a laptop open and big scratch pad covered in strategic notes.
That's how the software engineer got the idea for his website, The Bachelor Bracket, where people can create Bachelor/ette brackets and compete in online leagues for free. They're automatically scored and ranked by the site, which also provides contestant information, strategies and commentary. It has a total of 1,314 players and 375 leagues. But that's far from the everyone who's turning to the Bracketology of dating shows.
Others do it the traditional way, with a pen and paper. Katherine Somerdyk hasn't used the website, but this season she filled out brackets for two leagues: one with her friends and one with coworkers. Having done Fantasy Football before, she points out that in the same way an injury can make the third-string wide receiver on your team suddenly valuable, that "random wild card person ends up being much more normal than you thought." This season it's Zak W., a guy who creepily emerged from the limo without a shirt on in the season premiere, but somehow ended up making it to the hometown dates. On The Bachelor Bracket website, he only got 2 percent of the nominations.
While the brackets borrow from the sports world, there are certainly things about the pre-recorded, highly produced reality show that don't really translate. With sports, everybody going into the tournament has a ranking and stats from previous years to reference. With The Bachelor, you just have a blurb on the website and a first episode. As Greczner puts it: "It's more feelings-based." Somerdyk says she hasn't done that well this season, partially because she has very different taste in men than Desiree, the actual Bachelorette.
Others have made a career out of spoiling the outcome of the show, basically rendering the idea of a bracket meaningless. (Or more meaningless.) Steve Carbone, owner of the popular website Reality Steve, has been leaking spoilers before each season even starts for the past four years. He gets between 1 to 1.5 million unique visitors a month.
Carbone thinks that since he's started spoiling, things have changed. He gets a lot more emails from people who say they like reading the end of the book before they start. "Over time, people have realized that since they've only had two successful marriages in 25 seasons, [they] aren't watching this show for a love story, and if they are, they're watching for the wrong reasons, 'cause the last thing this show is about is love and marriage," he says. "It's purely entertainment."
The entertainment value is something that has kept fans like Amanda Hale engaged for the past decade, even if she knows the canned narratives and endings by heart. The way the sports world has its own set of traditions and recurring themes — everything from a game's structure to the internal politics — the same story plays out season after season on the show. "There's something about the suspense and build up...the ritual, the routine," she says on the show's similarities to sports. "It almost becomes Middle Earth...it has its own language."
This is a language that quite literally doesn't change. You'll be hard-pressed to find a lead who doesn't say, "I think my husband/wife is in this room" or fret over who's "here for the wrong reasons." There are characters — a villain, protector, whiner and good guy — that emerge every season. Every episode will start with a date card sending people off to skydive or hear a spontaneous concert or embarrass themselves but allegedly be good sports about it, and every episode will end with the rose ceremony in which someone goes home. And there are always hometown dates, a fantasy suite card (offering the opportunity to spend the night together before you decide in theory to "get engaged"), and breakdowns in the limo after eliminations.
The bracket, although genuinely pointless, heightens the stakes of these plotlines, and gives the viewer a sense that they have mastered the highly-produced reality show, rather than that it has mastered them.
"I think doing the bracket makes it a little more fun, because you almost have a vested interest," Greczner says. "It might be easier to lose that interest if you don't have something holding you on."