On Monday evening, No. 3 seed Michigan will square off against No. 1 seed Villanova in the NCAA basketball championship game. Perhaps you used the tournament seeding to help you pick the winners in your own office bracket. But have you ever thought about why we use the word “seed” in this way? Listener Corin Guimond from Manchester, New Hampshire has, and she reached out to the Curiosity Desk.
I’ve always been curious about why different placements and ranks within various sports are referred to as seeds. I was just wondering where that originated from and why it is like it is.
It is sort of odd when you think about it. How does a word as old as the English language itself — a word that has always been used to describe those little guys that we plant in the ground — become so closely associated with college basketball? Well, it turns out, the word "seed” has also been a sports term for well over a century — before basketball was even being played on college campuses. It was a word adopted by the sporting world not because of basketball, but in tennis.
"Tennis itself has been around since 1874," said Meredith Richards, librarian at the International Tennis Hall of Fame museum in Newport, Rhode Island. "It was actually a game that was patented in Wales."
The game of tennis quickly caught on in the U.K., as well as here in the U.S.
"In the beginning of the game of tennis, it was more of what we would call a gentleman’s sport," said Richards. "Country club members would play, you know, for fun."
Soon tennis tournaments were all the rage. Wimbledon got going in 1877. And in those early days, the matches were drawn at random, which is why the schedule of matchups in a tennis tournament was, and still is, called the “draw.”
"Tournament tennis was not nearly as competitive as it is today," said Richards. "And it obviously got more and more competitive as the years went on."
As it did — and as it drew more and more spectators — a problem arose. Too often, good players were meeting in early rounds of tournaments, leading to anti-climactic semi-finals and finals.
"So, they kind of came up with this idea of spreading the names of the maybe the top 8, top 16 around in the draw," explained Richards.
This increased the odds that the best players would face off in the final rounds.
In essence, they were spreading — or scattering — the top players throughout the draw just like you would with seeds in a garden to allow them to flourish. Accordingly, the practice became known as seeding.
Exactly who came up with the term is lost to history. But Richards says after huddling with colleagues at Wimbledon and the International Tennis Federation, she believes it first came into use in 1890, right here in New England, at the U.S. National Championship in Newport, Rhode Island. That tournament is now called the U.S. Open and is played each year in New York.
"1890 onwards is when they started talking about seeds being scattered around the draw, so you could have the strongest ones having the better chance to grow," she said.
The practice of seeding, and the use of the term, steadily spread from there — first throughout tennis and then to other sports.
As for the NCAA basketball tournament? It began as a true eight-team draw back in 1939. The NCAA began seeding the tournament in the late 1970s.
Our thanks to listener Corin Guimond whose question led to today’s story. What's yours? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you have been curious about.