PUBLISHER'S NOTEBOOK: Busted brackets the norm, despite promises of riches
Thursday, March 27, 2014 6:46 AM
I don't need to ask you if your bracket has been busted after another round of upsets unfolded in the NCAA basketball tournament. March madness lives up to its name as unpredictability reigns in this annual event.
The tournament has become quite a phenomenon. People who don't pay attention to the regular season fill out brackets in a quest to get bragging rights over their friends, family or co-workers.
It is estimated that 50 to 60 million Americans fill out brackets in office pools and nearly as many participate outside the office.
Even President Barack Obama fills out a bracket. Three of his teams he picked for the Elite Eight are gone, but all his Final Four teams are still alive. For the record, he picked Michigan State, a fourth seed, to win it all, beating another four seed, Louisville, in the title game.
With all that enthusiasm for this annual event comes costs. Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based global outplacement firm, estimated companies were likely to lose about $1.2 billion for every unproductive work hour last week when the tournament started with its first two rounds.
The tourney bracket contests took on a new twist this year with a Quicken Loans national bracket contest backed by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, which would have given away $1 billion to any contestant to correctly pick every winner in this year's tournament.
According to one estimate, at least 95 percent of the approximately 100 million brackets filled out across America were busted by the time the tournament's round of 64 was barely 12 hours old. In the Quicken contest, no perfect brackets remained by the end of Friday when the field was narrowed to 32.
Calculating the odds of a perfect bracket is impossible because, as Buffet said, picking the winner isn't a random event like a coin flip. However, the fine print on the Yahoo website where the Quicken contest is hosted, noted the odds of winning the grand prize are 1:9,223,372,036,854,775,808. That's 1 in 9.2 quintillion.
Jeff Bergen, a math professor at DePaul University, derived a more realistic calculation that takes basketball knowledge into account. If you know the sport pretty well, he concludes, your chances of picking perfectly are more like 1 in 128 billion.
Those are still formidable odds. As far as anyone knows, there has never been a documented perfect bracket. ESPN has been running a large-scale bracket contest for 13 years. Nobody has ever come close to perfection, the sports network's John Diver told CNN in January. Only one person in the last seven years managed to pick just the first-round winners correctly.
Even science isn't a big help. Statistics students at North Dakota State University used a formula called logistic conditional probability to predict the outcome of every game this year.
Their formula missed their own university's upset over Oklahoma in the first round. For the record, though, all their Final Four teams are still alive. Their statistics point to an Arizona win over Virginia for the title.
Even though there are no perfect brackets once again, there are still winners. For example, in the Quicken contest, 20 contestants will bring home $100,000 each for having the best bracket and Quicken will donate $1 million to programs for inner-city children.
Of course, Quicken and Yahoo may be the ultimate winners in that contest. Yahoo gets a lot of new people signing up for Yahoo accounts, a requirement to play the bracket challenge, while Quicken, which happens to be the fourth largest mortgage lender in the United States, gets personal information and answers to your home mortgage situation from the signup forms.
Those conditions, rather than the extreme odds, likely deterred some people from participating in the billion-dollar bracket challenge. The firm wouldn't divulge the number of entries, but it was thought to be close to the stated cap of 15 million.
I didn't enter the Quicken Loans contest. Yet, I still participated in an office pool - taking a hit to my own productivity slightly - and another one with family members and friends.
For the record, unlike Obama and the NDSU students, I lost one of my Final Four teams when Kansas was upset in the second round. At the office, I have Arizona beating Michigan State in the title game.
Most of us are content to play low-stakes games with friends or co-workers. It's a chance to show off our basketball knowledge, even if it sometimes seems we would be better off flipping a coin.
After all, if we really desired to make a billion dollars, we could do what Buffet and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert did - spend decades building strong businesses using our knowledge to put together visionary business plans rather than basketball brackets. Likely we would still never become billionaires, but our odds would be a lot better than competing in their contest.