Madness, Matchsticks and Money

TSTWith the selection of the teams for the NCAA Basketball Tournament on Sunday, one of the most participatory rituals in American sports gets under way … the filling out of the March Madness bracket.  I find it amusing that the scrupulously amateur NCAA (at least when it comes to players, but that’s another post) produces the event that is the second busiest for Las Vegas behind the Super Bowl.  But it’s not just your traditional gamblers and sports nuts.  Sports fans, both serious and casual, will meticulously examine brackets available virtually everywhere online and pick each game over the next three plus weeks in hope of winning the office pool, a wager or an online bracket competition.   According to, The FBI estimates that more than $2.5 billion is illegally wagered annually on March Madness each year. According to the NCAA, more than 10 percent of Americans participate in March Madness office pools.   Why?

Well, for one, it’s easy for the casual fan … or even the non-fan … because it’s a seeded tournament.  You don’t have to look farther than your bracket to see how each team is ranked and hence, which team is supposed to win, at least according to the NCAA Tournament selection committee.  But morebracket importantly, it’s unpredictable.  For years, a colleague of mine organized the Hughes Memorial March Madness Matchstick Trophy Challenge, a bracket competition that brought together engineering geeks, engineering sports stat freaks, wives and kids.  We didn’t play for matchsticks, by the way, we just said we did to avoid running afoul of the Human Resources Anti-Gambling police.  Every year, the Pick-the-Seeds bracket (where you assume every higher seeded team will win) was dedicated to charity.  In twenty-five years, Pick-the-Seeds won once.   I won once and came in last once (thereby being awarded The Brick, a last place trophy).  Wives won.  Kids won.   Clueless engineering geeks won.   And that’s the point … once you’ve been convinced to play the first time, you realize that you’re just as likely to win as the guy down the hall that consulted every sports website online before filling out his bracket.  Oh, and does he hate that!  You’re hooked.

Now, you’d think with the supposed expert seeding of the tournament … and all the expert advice available online … picking a good bracket, if not a winner, NCAA Basketball Tournament - Regionals - Anaheimwould be easy but it’s not.   While the advice on individual games may be fairly good, there are always upsets and bracket scores are cumulative.  If a team you picked goes out in an upset, you can’t get any more points along that path to the finals.  These are college kids after all on one of the largest sports stages.  The teams come from widely disparate leagues with different … and different quality … competition during the year.  For example, this year, Wichita State, a number one seed, is undefeated but many experts question whether they’ve played enough good teams to be a serious contender.  In this era when the best players stay in college one of two years then go pro, it seems as if there’s always one small college team made up of older players whose years together is enough to over come the superior talent of a big name team.  So, picking the upsets is the name of the bracketology game.

Here are some interesting (to me, at least) statistics.   The tournament is arranged so that the highest ranked teams play the lowest in the first round, with the #1 team in each bracket playing #16.  Courtesy, the #1 team has never lost in the first round, although there have been a few scares.  However, in the #5 vs #12, #6 vs#11 and #7 vs #10, the underdog wins roughly a third of the time.  All four #1 seeds have made it to the Final Four only once, while no #1 teams have made it three times.  See?  Upsets.  According to, Defining an upset as beating a team at least 4 seeds higher, there’s an average of 8.7 per year. There’s never been a year with less than 5 upsets. Still, with millions of people filling out brackets and all the advice available on line, you’d think someone would pick a perfect bracket.  Billionaire Warren Buffet, a man known for making money not losing it, is willing to bet against you.  He’s offered one billion dollars to anyone who submits a perfect bracket to his Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge (For you Parrotheads, that’s Warren.  The Jimmy Buffet Bracketcheeseburger Challenge gets you a Cheeseburger in Paradise and a Margarita).   There are many sources that will tell you the odds of winning are 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 to 1 but that’s based simply on the total number of bracket selections possible.   Taking into account some historical bracket probabilities, Jeffrey Bergen, a math professor at DePaul University, told USA Today that the odds improve to one in 128 billion.

So, here are Two Thoughts for Top Sites Tuesday #244.   Thought Number One:  The odds of winning the California Lottery jackpot are one in 259 million, but that’s not a billion dollars.  Are you tempted to wander over to the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge and submit a bracket?  How about if I tell you Quicken will award $100,000 for each of the contest’s 20 most accurate brackets?  And Thought Number Two: Suppose you were all the way to the Final Four with a perfect bracket.  Mr. Buffett (Warren not Jimmy) shows up at your front door.  How much would he have to offer you to drop out then and there?  Me?  Just push my button … gently … to make me Number One on Top Sites Tuesday #244 and I’ll be happy.  I’ve already submitted by perfect bracket.

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3 Comments on “Madness, Matchsticks and Money”

  1. cherperz Says:

    I know nothing about filling out a bracket…or about the teams, for that matter. I heard on the news about Warren Buffet willing to pay out a billion dollars for a perfect bracket. I would love for some one as ignorant of the tournament as I am to radomly fill in a bracket…and by sheer happenstance have it be perfect. OK..I know that is all but impossible but it still would be fun.


  2. Wolfbernz Says:

    Hi Bud,

    I’m not really sure about the bracket stuff, as I don’t follow sports much, but it seems you have it down to a science! Good luck on getting that Billion Dollars!


  3. Trina Says:

    What an interesting game! I’ve never participated, but do you watch all the games too or do you just follow who wins?

    A Billion Dollars would be an amazing amount of money, but the perfect bracket… nearly impossible.


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