Off The Record: Let the 'bracket racket' begin

March 15, 2004|HERB BROCK

In a few days, surgeons will excuse themselves from operating rooms during major surgeries, teachers will leave their rooms in the middle of important lectures and detectives will suddenly halt interrogations of suspects who are about to spill the beans and leave the killers alone with tape recorders and those bare lightbulbs.

What are these important professionals doing stopping their important work? They all had to drop what they were doing in order to complete their NCAA tournament brackets in time to meet deadlines for submitting them.

The preceding scenarios might be a bit of a stretch to illustrate the passion surrounding "March Madness" and the bracket mania it produces, but not much of one. Life during the rest of this month and the beginning of next month will, for many, revolve around basketball as we literally follow the bouncing balls on the next few Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and, with it, our investments in the roundball version of the stock market - the NCAA brackets.


Wall Street may have its analysts, but the NCAA tournament has its bracketologists. These are so-called experts who, starting with the end of the last NCAA tournament, already are predicting how the brackets for the 65 teams will set up in the four regions for the next tourney.

For the weeks leading up to tournament, we amateur bracketologists make our guesses around the water coolers, in the break rooms and next to the outdoor ashtrays at our places of work. But once it's bracket-making time, the light water cool conversations cease and the dead serious business of picking winners begins as it's now time that we put our money where our mouths have been the past several weeks.

Depending on where you work, the investment in this sports version of the New York Stock Exchange is, compared to the NYSE, modest and the return on investment won't allow you to retire. At a small business with about 50 employees, the going rate for entering a bracket usually is in the $2 to $5 per bracket range and the payoff, if everyone were to enter one bracket and it's a winner-takes-all contest, is in the range of $100 to $250.

Still, bracket investors are just as eager to see how their picks did as stock investors are to see how their stocks did. While stock market players rustle through the financial sections of their newspapers, bracket players check out posted results. At our office, the cubicle of our "bracket contest manager" - it's an unofficial, unpaid (or so we're told) title but he deserves it because he handles the dissemination of brackets, collection of fees, computerized calculations and posting of results after each round and the distribution of winnings - is the most popular in the building.

The morning after each round, the bracket contest manager's cubicle is surrounded by people eager to see how they did compared to the other contestants. Martin Luther's "95 Theses" didn't get near the attention that Mike Marsee's "65 Teams" does.

But there is one person in our office who rarely bothers to check the results. That would be me. I never win. I don't even come close. The results usually are on two pages. The few times I check, I don't even bother to look at the top sheet. I automatically flip that page and look at the bottom of the second page to see my name. For everyone else in the office NCAA pool, the cost of getting into it is called an entry fee. To me, it's a donation. I just hope I like the co-worker who ends up with my annual contribution to the winner's financial well-being because I know I won't be getting it.

Of course, I always accuse Brack Contest Manager Marsee of fixing the contest and charge him with operating a bracket racket. But my history as a horrible contestant is so consistent that such charges carry no weight.

Nevertheless, my terrible track record has never stopped me from offering my opinion on how the tournament will turn out. Just like the other prognosticating game I play - picking who will win elections - my NCAA picks serve a useful, humanitarian purpose: When I choose a candidate or team, I generously give people a big tip as to what candidate or another team they should select. In other words, they choose anyone I don't.

So in the interest of my sharing wealth with my fellow man and woman, I forthwith shall offer a few predictions regarding teams of local interest, with predictions predicated on the fact that, like the stock market, sports and about everything else worthwhile in life, the bracket racket is a numbers game:

4 - As in "Final Four," the round where the University of Kentucky will complete the 2003-04 season. Not bad for a "solid" team with no real stars.

8 - As in "Elite Eight," the round where this year's SEC powerhouse, Mississippi State, will complete the season. The Bulldogs virtually came out of nowhere to end up in the Top 10 and rank ahead of UK, hearkening back to the days when Babe McCarthy's MSU teams used to dominate UK in the early 1960s.

16 - As in "Sweet 16," the round where the University of Louisville will complete the season. Good season but some U of L faithful were expecting Final Fours by now. Can you see the tears in my eyes as I type this?

32 - As in the "Round of 32," where Indiana University will complete the season, but in the NIT, not NCAA. Mike Davis can hear the "bring back Bobby" chant.

50 - The total number of miles that the darling of the media and NCAA selection committee, aka Duke, will have to travel to get to the sites of the first two rounds.

6 - The number of years until UK's basketball program is on NCAA probation again. History shows that either the basketball or football teams or both are on probation about every 10 years or so.

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