A Brief Lesson in NCAA Tournament Economics

by Todd Shriber

The first-ever National Collegiate Athletic Association’s basketball tournament field of 68 was announced on Sunday. How the newly expanded field is received by fans and participants in a grand, old American past time, the office tournament pool, remains to be seen.

The NCAA blatantly opposes betting on the games. “Sports wagering can be a serious crime and can threaten the health and well-being of student-athletes and the integrity of the game itself,” the association’s home page says.

But that warning seemingly falls on deaf ears as the NCAA Tournament can play right into the hands of the Wall Street crowd. After all, it is a numbers game, so one might think there’s a trading algorithm that can be used to generate winning picks. Speaking of numbers, the numbers associated with this event are quite staggering. There are 147.5 million different ways to fill out a 68-team bracket, according to The Houston Chronicle.

That’s a nice anecdote, but one of the truly stand-out factoids about tournament pools is their damage on the workplace. The NCAA Men’s Tournament lasts for three weeks, and in that time 8.4 million hours in productivity are lost at a cost of $192 million, the Chronicle reports, citing outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.

How much is actually wagered on the tournament appears up for debate, but the sums are lofty. A report by Georgia Tech says $3 billion, most of it in the form of office pools, is wagered each year on the tournament. The FBI estimates that $2.5 billion is bet on each NCAA tournament, but only $80 million of that is wagered legally through Las Vegas sports books, The Washington Post reported. The Chronicle notes $12 billion could be bet on this tournament, which is more than was bet on the Super Bowl.

As for the odds of picking a perfect bracket, here’s the number courtesy of Docsports.com: 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. That was of last year, so it’s logical to assume it will be harder to accomplish the feat this year with an expanded field. And yes, that number means one stands a better chance of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning.

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