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NCAA basketball contests a big business for some
Office pools pump up March Madness, yet others pass the ball on taking part
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What do you call a criminal act that is nearly unenforceable?

When it comes to betting on the men’s college basketball tournament, “illegal but usually ignored” seems a fitting answer to this rhetorical riddle. 

The weight of the law might crush this term’s relevance or standing, but in the court of public opinion it seems to capture March Madness in all its buzzer-beating glory.

You don’t even have to be a basketball fan to enjoy the men’s tournament, which begins today and pits 64 remaining schools, including the University of Georgia and Georgia State University squads, in a single-elimination format. It takes six wins to win it all (seven for teams competing in the First Four play-in games).

According to several studies, upward of 60 to 70 million brackets will be filled out this year as people try to predict the outcome of the remaining 63 games.

More than 11 million brackets were entered in ESPN’s annual tournament pool in 2014. 

And WalletHub, a social network centered on personal finance issues, reports 1 in 10 Americans participate in a bracket pool, such as in the office with colleagues or at school with classmates, and the

average bet is $29 each.

Indeed, while many people fill out brackets for fun or bragging rights, an estimated $12 billion is bet worldwide on the tournament, with $2.5 billion wagered illegally, according to WalletHub.

The numbers are astounding, particularly given the number of games and unpredictable matchups along the way.

In fact, the odds of having a perfect bracket are 1 in 9.2 quintillion, and you are two times more likely to win the lottery back-to-back than to correctly predict every game, according to Jeff Bergen, a mathematics professor at DePaul University.

However, a little basketball knowledge and tournament history could help lower those odds to 1 in 128 billion, Bergen reports.

Filling out a bracket is so commonplace that President Barack Obama films a segment with ESPN each year revealing the commander-in-chief’s picks.

But not everyone gets to play along.

“(The NCAA) is so strict ... it’s considered gambling on sports,” said Chris Faulkner, the men’s head basketball coach at the University of North Georgia. “If I filled out a bracket in a $5 pool with my buddies, I’m endangering my job by doing so. I know a lot of people that get involved with it. But I’m not about to touch it.”

Faulkner recalled the case of former University of Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel, who was caught participating in a neighborhood pool during the 2003 tournament. Neuheisel ultimately lost his job over the matter but was not sanctioned by the NCAA.

Then there are those who have grown tired of losing the office pool year after year.

“I was sent an email from my buds linking into the ESPN pool site, but I have been too busy to sit down and pick my teams,” said Brent Hoffman, who works in the commercial division of the Berkshire Hathaway office in Gainesville. “Plus, I stink at it.”

“I’m glad some Georgia teams made it to the tournament this year, but we won’t be streaming one second of March Madness basketball here at the chamber,” said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce. “This is a busy time of year for us with our job fair, Chamber Chase 5K and Hackers Holiday events coming up.”

But the prevalence of bracket pools and off-the-books tournament betting keeps the attention of local law enforcement.

“We are certain this is a common practice amongst many offices, although we rarely receive formal complaints regarding this type of gambling activity,” said Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin.

On Monday, the Alpharetta Police Department raided a pizzeria after receiving a tip about gambling on the tournament taking place during a private party at the restaurant.

About two dozen individuals were arrested, with investigators confiscating cash and handguns in the process. 

In many ways, bracket pools run afoul of the law when they become too big, with large amounts of money at stake — or perhaps when an organization or person managing the pool takes a cut of the winnings.

Were a similar operation found to be running in Hall County, Gainesville police spokesman Cpl. Kevin Holbrook said the Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad would handle the case.

“We would have to have knowledge that there is illegal activity being conducted in order to begin the investigation,” Holbrook added. “When we look at these types of cases we must weigh the possible outcomes, and most importantly work with the prosecutor to determine the course of action that should be taken.”

There is a certain amount of discretion that must come into play when dealing with bracket pools and small-time betting.

“It’s kind of comical,” Faulkner said. “It is a phenomenon that has taken place all over the country. ... I think it’s almost, in the public eye, become a legalized issue.”

Office pools present an interesting dilemma for human resources professionals. For Hall County Human Resources Director Bill Moats, office pools only become problematic when they interfere with work.

“If I was aware of an office pool, I’m not going to go cracking down ... as long as it’s not becoming a distraction and you’re (not) gambling per se, or exchanging money during work hours,” Moats said. “It’s kind of no harm, no foul.”

Moats said he participates in the ESPN and CBS online tournament pools, and likes to compare brackets and predictions with colleagues. But no money is changing hands.

The big business of March Madness

All those bracket pools circulating among friends and colleagues have a huge economic impact beyond the gambling aspect.

For example, the global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas projects about $1.9 billion will be lost in wages paid to unproductive workers during this year’s tournament.

Today and Friday are the most unproductive of all workdays. That’s because 32 games will be played over the next 48 hours during the opening rounds of the tournament. And with games beginning around the lunch hour, it’s no surprise that workers try to sneak a peek at the action from their cubicles.

But it’s not all downside.

At Buffalo Wild Wings on Dawsonville Highway in Gainesville, March Madness is big business.

Shift leader Nick Senecal said the restaurant lives for sporting events like the college basketball tournament.

With 62 televisions, nearly one for every game played, Senecal said patrons will never miss a moment of action.

The restaurant offers free Wi-Fi, allowing patrons to check their brackets online, and also has several games and prizes lined up during the tournament.

And, yes, some of the employees have organized a bracket pool, but no money is being wagered. 

“We do it for fun,” Senecal said.

March Madness is a boon in other ways, too. 

WalletHub reports Indianapolis will have a projected economic impact of about $71 million from hosting this year’s Final Four.

And television networks airing games are set to reap big rewards.

The average price of a 30-second advertisement during the 2014 title game, for example, was $1.5 million, up 5 percent from the previous year, according to WalletHub.

Even the amount of beer produced increases in March, and pizza orders rise up to 20 percent.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas even suggests employers embrace March Madness, perhaps by helping to organize a free office pool with a gift card or other small gift for the winner.

“For some businesses, March Madness is a light-hearted tradition for employees and business associates to share in the excitement and experience of the NCAA tournament,” said Evans, of the local chamber.

The impacts on employee morale and loyalty are long-term benefits that cannot be easily measured.

“It is a morale (boost) because it is something a lot of people enjoy this time of year,” Moats said.

Last year’s tournament games saw 102 million unique viewers, each logging an average of 377 minutes watched.

With the ubiquitous nature of smartphones, Internet and television, “We’re never going to completely stop it,” Moats said.