Bracketmania Strikes Across America

Friday, March 9th 2007, 1:48 pm
By: News On 6

Like millions of Americans, Jim McDonough carefully studies his teams before making his picks. He freely admits productivity in his office will slow next week as he and others in his pool start monitoring the action closely.

Let others pick underdogs. He just picks dogs.

``The only sports betting we do around here is our annual Iditarod pool,'' said McDonough, an account executive at Siemens Building Technologies Inc. in Anchorage, Alaska.

So maybe March Madness is a little different up in the frozen north, where the huskies are dogs pulling sleds through the snow, not basketball players for the University of Connecticut or the University of Washington.

Across the rest of the country, though, it's time to start filling out brackets and tossing a few dollars into the pot. The office pool party to end all office pool parties is about to begin.

On Sunday, the NCAA will fill out the 65-team field that will lead to the promised land of the Final Four in Atlanta. By Monday morning, millions of Americans will have brackets in their e-mails or fax machines, and office copiers around the nation will be spitting out even more of them.

It's bigger business than Las Vegas, and a bargain, too, usually $5, $10 or $20 a person.

Bettors will stay up overnight to get a seat to watch the action in the Vegas sports books, and $80 million to $90 million is expected to be bet legally on the games in Nevada.

By one FBI estimate a few years ago, the office pools are worth $2.5 billion.

Pools will be run from loading docks in New York, financial firms in Miami and government offices in Washington, D.C. College students whose schools have no chance of even making the tournament will get them, and baseball players at spring training will juggle two or three pools at a time.

The NCAA doesn't much like it, and some bosses fret that employees won't get their work done because they're watching games or perusing Web sites. But it's become an annual rite of spring enjoyed equally by Wall Street tycoons and the people who park their cars.

``It takes away the winter gloom and puts it into a spring fever,'' said Fred Kirsch, office manager at the Furniture and Appliancemart in Wassau, Wis., where 65 people have already signed up at $20 apiece. ``It takes away from the everyday work environment, too. This is something that livens it up. We are waiting impatiently for the brackets to form.''

There are stories of far more expensive pots getting up to $100,000, but for the most part the pools are a low-budget, low-pressure way to keep the interest up for people who have never heard of George Mason or Old Dominion.

And keep them interested it does. A survey by career publisher Vault Inc. showed that 27 percent of employees participate in March Madness office pools, and that a third of them take at least 30 minutes at work to fill out their brackets.

``The bosses don't care as long as the work gets done,'' said Andy Carver, who runs a $10-per-person pool for 20-30 employees at the trucking firm where he works in Cicero, N.Y. ``With the computer, it really only takes a few minutes, so it's not like I'm cheating them out of time.''

With high-speed Internet access common in many offices, the urge to keep tabs on favorite teams is becoming more difficult to resist. CBS is doubling its Internet bandwidth this year so that 300,000 people can watch video streams of games at any given time, a target audience generally assumed to be office workers.

The network is even offering a ``Boss'' button that can be hit if viewers see a supervisor coming. The button silences the audio and causes a fake spreadsheet to pop up.

Businesses are fighting back with technology such as that offered by Websense Inc. to block access on company computers to sites workers may use to watch games or follow scores.

``Historically, March Madness has been a huge productivity drain on businesses,'' said Websense executive Steve Kelley.

That's one reason _ and the fact that they're technically illegal in most states _ that pools are frowned upon at many companies. Still, the bosses themselves are sometimes the ones running the pools. At CB Richard Ellis, a corporate real estate broker in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., managing director Jeff Holding gets about 125 entries a year for his pool, which costs $20 to enter.

``I think as long as you're not doing it to make money and you're not doing it to where it takes away from your production, then it's OK,'' Holding said. ``And I guess the third thing would be if you're not twisting people's arms to play. This is strictly a volunteer-have-fun-with-it type of deal.''

Holding said his pool is not sanctioned or sponsored by his company, but that up to half of the employees in his office get in. He's been running it for about 20 years, and last year was the first time he won any money himself.

``I've never been accused of cheating,'' he said.

Alisa Shver has never won her pool, either. But that doesn't stop the Philadelphia attorney from putting in $10 in a pool of more than 200 people, mostly other attorneys and their friends.

Shver said she makes multiple copies of her bracket sheet so she can keep one at the office, another at home and a third in her carry bag. That way she can check on her teams at all times, even if it means digging out the sheet from her purse at a bar during happy hour.

``You become kind of obsessed,'' she said.

Down in Florida, players scrimping for meal money and hoping to make big league baseball rosters join multimillionaire veterans in pools that are ubiquitous in every clubhouse. The pools are taken so seriously that one year FBI agents who came to talk to the Los Angeles Dodgers about the evils of gambling were kept waiting outside the clubhouse while players completed their pool picks.

``It's championship week,'' said New York Yankees reliever Mike Myers. ``A couple of guys are saying to make sure to bring in your money for Monday.''