Troubling March Madness byproduct: a boom in 'bracketology'

The mix of math, basketball stats, and guts is raising concerns among addiction counselors, sociologists, and the NCAA itself.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It started with a $5 pool as the Midwestern high schooler filled out a bracket of teams he predicted would climb to the Valhalla of college basketball: the Final Four.

His run ended before he graduated from college last May, when he had to pay the mafia $25,000 to lay off his family and himself. What happened? Given the prospect of easy money, his own smarts, and plenty of time to watch sports on TV, he'd become the dorm bookmaker, carrying $100,000 a month in bets, encroaching on established local rackets.

It's an extreme tale, but a cautionary one as the growing mania around "bracketology" – the mix of math, stats, and guts used to bet on which teams make it to the championship round – is raising concern among addiction counselors, sociologists, and the NCAA itself.

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At the same time, bracketology has moved out of sports bars and cubicle mazes and into university math labs. There, Pythagorean theorems are leveraged against Joakim Noah's stats and the dynastic influence of Patrick Ewing Jr. on the Georgetown squad to draw math-wary students into problems that matter to them.

"[Bracketology] cuts as deep sociologically as anything I can come up with," says Tim Otteman, a researcher at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, a perch from where he gathered the real-life story about the college bookie who ran afoul of the mob. "It's almost a runaway train that can't be stopped."

After the NCAA established the national bracket of 64 teams (later 65) in 1985, the office pool existed chiefly among sports-crazy working men who pasted their cubicles and favorite sports joints with printed brackets. In essence, bettors receive an ascending number of points for each round that their chosen teams advance, all the way up to the champion. The one with the most points at the end takes the pool. Across America, brackets are right now either falling apart or holding steady as the Final Four – Georgetown, Florida, Ohio State, and UCLA – march to Atlanta this weekend.

Today, social networking sites such as Facebook have added brackets, and many of the some 2,200 gambling sites offer their own versions. The NCAA estimates that 1 out of 10 Americans placed at least one wager on a bracket this year. A growing number are women and nonsports fans.

"I would say bracketology is a social phenomenon," says Jack Salisbury, an avid bracketologist and a Stanford University undergrad. "There's a girl in my dorm who I'm pretty sure is not into basketball, and she's coming into my room at 10 a.m. asking, 'Did Georgia Tech beat UNLV, do you know?' "

Though technically illegal in most of the US, such "social gambling" is still widely accepted, and, in 21 states, is tolerated as long as a bookie isn't involved. But what's driving bracketology is easy access to stats and commentary online, as well as the plethora of college games available all season on cable TV.

Moreover, Mr. Otteman says, bracketology is an activity that occupies the fast-clicking minds of the "Millennials generation." What's more, there are enough easy rules of thumb – the 12th seed, for example, beats the fifth seed 25 percent of the time – for novices to quickly ramp up. Others rely on superstition, such as letting their cat make the pick. Whatever the case, once the pick is made, there's a rooting interest in the game.

That's exactly the danger, addiction counselors say. Hardly a harmless diversion, bracketology is a "gateway" activity that can lead to compulsive gambling. "We're building a nation of gamblers," says Arnie Wexler, former executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.

That puts the NCAA in a corner, since bracket-betting drives viewers, which in turn drives TV contracts, worth billions of dollars. "CBS is only on board because everybody watches, and everybody watches because everybody fills out brackets," says Otteman.

For its part, the NCAA prohibits athletes and coaches from making any wagers, and metes out punishment if necessary. "We're aware of office pools that are in excess of $100,000, and that's a lot of revenue that could impact sport," says Stacey Osburn, an NCAA spokeswoman in Indianapolis.

At the same time, many college students, as well as professors, see bracketology as an introduction on how higher-order mathematics fits into everyday American life. And that can galvanize get-togethers.

"It's kind of a recreation," says John Griggs, who teaches the "Mathematics of Sports" at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Still, Mr. Griggs is aware it can get much more intense. When a student of his, R.J. Menachof, came up with a Pythagorean algorithm that weighted the 65 teams on 22 offensive and defensive factors, he came close to unraveling sports betting's Gordian knot. Mr. Menachof's bracketology machine picked 80 percent of teams coming out of the first round, including upsets.

Griggs pulled Menachof aside and only half-jokingly told him that, if the machine works, " 'You need to insulate yourself somehow,' that some of a different element would be coming after him."

He needn't have worried. Menachof's theorem fell apart, failing to predict any of the Final Four. He still got an A.

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