On the wall of a cubicle at MATRIX Resources' Dallas, Texas office, the brackets are hung carefully in straight lines. Employees shout over the high partitions that separate their desks about who is making which picks and in what order. An email went out a few weeks ago detailing the rules: Participants cannot do research, they cannot read spoilers, and all brackets have to be turned in three hours before the premiere of ABC's hit show The Bachelorette.
The team at MATRIX isn't alone. All across the country, people (mostly women, but some of the groups I spoke to included men) have just submitted their carefully chosen predictions for who Bachelorette JoJo Fletcher will pick to be the (hopeful) love of her life—and which men she'll send home each week. These reality TV fans turned low-stakes gamblers play for many things. In some groups, there's a buy-in rate and the winner takes home a pool of money. Sometimes the host buys a gift for the winner, and sometimes each week's best performer is rewarded with a single red rose. On BachelorBracket.com, there are groups competing for prizes like "free drinks," "10 bottles of wine," a "monthly wine subscription," and a "gift certificate for a fantasy suite at the W."
Bachelor (and Bachelorette) brackets aren't nearly as common as March Madness brackets or friendly wagers on the Super Bowl, but they're a lot more popular than you might think. With almost nine million viewers every week, The Bachelor franchise is hardly a cult phenomenon. But because it's dismissed as a "silly" show and its viewership is stereotypically conceived as groups of women sitting around drinking wine, Bachelor brackets aren't taken seriously. But just like a major sporting event, people are watching this season with their dignity—and their money—on the line.
Fans have made Bachelor brackets for at least a decade. Maria—who preferred not to be identified by her last name—told me that she's been running a bracket for her friends in Houston, Texas ever since Travis Lane Stork's season in 2006.
"Things were easygoing for a few years, and we didn't have a ton of rules. But after [Jason] Mesnick's season," she pauses here to make a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "After Mesnick's season, we had to institute a rule sheet. Things got nasty that year."
In 2009, Jason Mesnick was responsible for what was truly—as host Chris Harrison might sell it in a promo—one of the most dramatic season finales in Bachelor history. He proposed to one woman, then dumped her live on the After the Final Rose special, and then asked out the second-place contestant instead. "Two of the ladies in our group, well, they had been tied, and when he flopped his pick—maybe I had poured too much wine that night—but [one woman] threw her wine in [the other woman]'s face, she was so mad," Maria explained.
After that, she told me, they made new rules. Everyone had to fill out their brackets the minute the premiere ended, making picks all the way through the season, with bonus points to be awarded for correct predictions about what would happen after the final episode.
There is no universal regulation among Bachelor bracket competitions. Every group can choose to score however they like.
Janie Stolar, who runs a private Bachelor Facebook group, told me: "There are some brackets that are about how many women cry or certain bingo points. I’m all about who is going to win and the order of elimination. There have been 22 seasons at this point, and you’ve seen it so many times that I believe the real skill is predicting how the producers are going to set up the winner."
Stolar's group makes their bets like Maria's group, at the end of the first episode. Of the 15 different Bachelor bracket groups I talked to, 12 of them submitted their answers at the end of the first night, and only three before that.
"The first one we did, we filled out our brackets after the first night, so everyone formulated their opinions based on that," Jennifer Bradley, who runs the bracket at MATRIX (and, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) told me. "But that wasn't challenging enough, so now we make the brackets due before the show even starts." At MATRIX, the only information that participants are permitted to use to help them complete their brackets is the official ABC contestant bios and questionnaires—no outside research, no previews, nothing.
This year, with JoJo Fletcher as America's Bachelorette, there is more focus on the bracket groups than ever before. On last night's season premiere, 27-year-old contestant James S. revealed himself to be a "Bachelor superfan." In his brief introductory segment, James didn't go for a contemplative stroll on the beach or tell a sad story from his past. He filled out a Bachelor bracket with (what appeared to be) his family.
Because there is no centralized network of Bachelor brackets, there's no way to put an exact number on how many women are playing the game. To get a better sense of just how big this phenomenon really is, I called up Alison Burn. Since last year, Allison and her fiancé, Dan Anton, have run BachelorBracket.com, where users can choose to submit a bracket to an open-enrollment group or create their own private league to play amongst friends.
As of press time, BachelorBracket.com has 148,659 users and 208,753 completed brackets. This figure, of course, doesn't account for the hundreds of thousands of women who fill out their Bachelor brackets on paper, the preferred method for 13 of the 15 groups I got to know. But Allison says she thinks the site has a ton of opportunity to grow.
"I mean, there are definitely other reality shows that people could do brackets for," she told me. "But I think this one has gained more popularity because they have a really devoted following. Because they always use someone from the previous season to be the lead, it’s easy to keep watching season after season."
The more seasons of the Bachelor you've seen, the better your bracket might turn out. But even experienced viewers disagree on which tells to watch out for.
"The key is to watch the Bachelorette's eye contact," Maria told me. "If she's looking at the person on camera with her, that guy has a chance, but if not, she's definitely looking at somebody else."
Others focused more on the narrative that the producers are building through editing. "Those first interactions, those are the spaces where you can tell how much of a chance someone has," Janie told me. "[The Bachelorette] finding a novelty entrance entertaining is a big tell. If you’re willing to overlook an absurd cupcake entrance, then you’re willing to overlook just about anything in life."
Still, every season is different. Jennifer's making some of her decisions based on what she sees as JoJo's "type" from her history on Ben Higgins' season of The Bachelor. "This season, I think Wills is the cutest contestant on there. He would be my pick, but he’s so scrawny and I can’t see her with a scrawny guy," Jennifer told me. Like JoJo, Jennifer is from Dallas, and she has a passing familiarity with the Bachelorette's ex-boyfriend: "I know the kind of guy she’s traditionally ended up with: good-looking, normally a bigger guy with scruff."
In a process not too different from how the Bachelorette will eventually decide who's worthy of her final rose, selecting a contestant to win your Bachelorette bracket is based on a combination of superficial judgments, personal preference, and luck. But the winner of your Bachelorette fantasy league doesn't get an engagement ring. She gets something better: bragging rights.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.