Legal issues aside, popular March Madness pools grow more sophisticated

by Jeff Barker, Contact Reporter
The Baltimore Sun

Just as mouse clicks online have mostly replaced photocopied NCAA Tournament brackets filled out by pencil — often with a good eraser at hand — the popular pools themselves may be starting to look antiquated.

Like college basketball itself, which often tinkers with its rules, March Madness pools are evolving as participants seek more variation, strategy and drama. With the tournament poised to tip off in earnest Thursday, there are more alternatives to the wildly popular — and often technically illegal — March diversion than there are zone defenses.

In traditional pools, participants pay an entry fee and pick the winners of 63 single-elimination games, accumulating points as chosen teams advance. Many of the newer approaches are designed to address what has long been regarded as a maddening flaw in that system. If you lose key teams in the early rounds, it quickly deflates your chances like a punctured basketball.

“How can you keep the excitement alive when most of your members have had their brackets busted?” posits the website of Maryland 3D, an Amateur Athletic Union basketball program in Anne Arundel County promoting a different kind of pool called “squares.”

“Squares” — a variation of a popular Super Bowl party game — is designed to offer even uninterested fans a reason to focus on the pursuit of college’s national basketball men’s championship. In 3D’s pool, participants put up $50 to buy any of 100 squares containing two numbers 0 to 9. They hope the numbers in their squares match the last digits of the final scores of any tournament game. The pool begins with the first game on Thursday and payouts increase in each round, up to $500 for the national championship game on April 2.

A program spokesman called the pool a “50-50 raffle” because he said the pot is being split evenly — $2,500 to the winners and $2,500 for fundraising, to help pay for such things as gym rentals and uniforms.

In other pools, organizers have been holding auctions this week in which participants gather at a bar or at home and bid real money on tournament teams. They “own” their teams by themselves and win a share of the pot when and if their selections advance.

“The auction-style format is better than brackets,” said Erik Simpson, a British literature professor at Grinnell College in Iowa who helped develop an auction pool years ago that has been catching on. “First, getting everybody together to draft the teams is a blast.”

“Bracket pools encourage insincerity,” Simpson said. “The auction format asks, ‘No, really. How much do you believe in Purdue?’ And finally, those teams that you believe in enough to buy in the auction become yours alone. If Purdue does win, in the context of the pool, you’re not sharing that glory.”

Some auction pots can climb into the thousands of dollars. In his pool, Simpson said “most people end up pretty close to where they started in the money standings. But we’re keenly aware of who wins.”

Another new take on friendly March Madness pool betting is what’s known as the “survivor pool,” in which players pick one or two teams each day or round and are eliminated if any of their teams lose.  The goal is to be the last member in the pool.

Even traditional pools are incorporating tweaks. Some pools, for example, offer extra points for choosing underdogs that win games.

Akim Reinhardt, a local historian who has sampled different sorts of pools, said he looks forward to deciphering reams of information.

“It’s almost like being a student again,” Reinhardt said. “I do probably three or four hours of research.”

Reinhardt said he looks for teams with certain characteristics.

“I like senior guards specifically that can keep a team stable,” he said.

About 10 percent of American adults — roughly 24 million people — reported spending more than $2.6 billion on entry fees for college basketball pools in the past year, according to a survey conducted by The Mellman Group and released this week by the American Gaming Association, a casino industry group.

“Why is it so popular? An easy answer is that people want to compete against their friends, but people also love gambling, and this is a form of it,” said Matt Saler, vice president of sports marketing for the Baltimore advertising and marketing firm IMRE. “Millions play fantasy football because it’s a similar type of gambling, and this is one those activities that doesn’t feel like traditional sports betting, but to an extent is.”

The more popular March Madness has become over the years, Saler said, “the more people diversify the way you can interact with the games. It’s smart. It allows the gaming to appeal to a wide array of audiences.”

Real-money sports pool betting is illegal in most states, according to the Washington-based gaming association.

“Our current sports betting laws are so out of touch with reality that we’re turning tens of millions of Americans into criminals for the simple act of enjoying college basketball,” said Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the association, in a written statement.

In Maryland, “if there is a prize involved, it’s illegal,” said Raquel Coombs, a spokesperson in the state attorney general’s office. “You need the three components — consideration, chance and a prize.”

Coombs said enforcement is “a local issue within the discretion of each state’s attorney.”

But even though it’s illegal, The Sun could not find any March Madness case in Baltimore that was prosecuted. Melba Saunders, a spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, declined to comment.

In Baltimore County, State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said: “I’ve been here 10 years and I don’t recall us ever having a case. Everything in criminal law is completely dependent on the specific facts of the case. And that’s how I answer every question about criminal law.”

There have been isolated instances in other states of sports pool organizers being arrested, but such cases are exceedingly rare.

Maryland also has regulations barring “conducting a pool or lottery” or “betting in any form” in state buildings. The federal government has similar restrictions.

“Many sports fans consider a friendly wager on the outcome as a harmless social pastime,” said an email sent last week to tens of thousands of employees of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “But betting, if done at work, runs afoul of the Federal regulations that prohibit gambling for money or property in the Federal workplace.”

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a challenge by New Jersey to the federal law banning sports betting in most states.

Despite the questions about legality, America’s obsession with NCAA basketball pools continues unabated.

Warren E. Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is offering $1 million a year for life for any of his employees who still have a perfect bracket after all but 16 teams have been eliminated. He said he will double the pot if Creighton, which is in his home state of Nebraska, wins the national championship.

Said Saler: “Filling out a bracket has become part of the American experience.”

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