Illegal Office Pools Raise The Stakes for Hoops Fans

It's that time of year again, baby! March Madness tips off on March 15, which means tens of thousands of otherwise diligent, hardworking and law-abiding Angenelos will forget about their jobs for a while to concentrate on the more exciting and possibly more profitable task of filling out the ubiquitous NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket.

Most office pools have relatively low entry fees, ranging from $5 to $25, but in some local offices, the stakes have become impressively high.

"I was in a pool last year with seven colleagues and friends where the entry fee was $5,000," one local investment banker said. "We each picked eight teams and it was a winner-take-all pot so someone not me walked away after the final game with forty grand in cash."

That investment banker, who will play in the same type of pool this year, said that office pool pots of five and six figures are not uncommon.

"A friend of mine told me about a pool in his office where the entry fee is 10 grand," he said. "I don't know who plays in it, but there are 16 spots, so the pot is a hundred and sixty grand."

These types of pools are clearly illegal in California, but Cesar Robaina, odds manager for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, said that law enforcement agencies generally ignore office pools because most are relatively small and the high-stakes ones are difficult to track.

More important, however, is the fact that no one, other than the winners, are profiting from the pools.

It's the bookie situation, where someone or some organization is illegally profiting from bets, that concerns law enforcement, Robaina said.

So why do CEOs, senior partners and managers tolerate illegal pools in their offices?

Well, many top executives participate in and sometimes organize the pools. Others turn a blind eye because they see how exciting March Madness pools are for their employees.

"It's is a really fun time of year to be at work because everyone is talking about the tournament and about how they're doing in the competition," said one local CEO, who asked to remain anonymous. "The pools may be illegal, but they're worth the risk, if there is one, when you see how much camaraderie and shared excitement employees get out of them."

Illegal wagers

The growing popularity of office pools, combined with dozens of dramatic games, has made the NCAA men's basketball tournament one of the most highly wagered sporting events of the year, second only to the Super Bowl.

Robaina said the amount of money legally wagered on March Madness games in Nevada casinos last year "was about $65 million." Super Bowl bets exceeded $70 million. But the number of illegal bets on the March Madness games dwarfs that total.

The FBI estimates that $2.5 billion was illegally wagered on the tournament last year, but Robaina said that figure may be too low.

"It's impossible to track the size and scope of illegal gambling, but generally you multiply the amount of money legally wagered by 50 to get a general estimate of illegally placed bets."

That would put the amount of money illegally wagered on March Madness this year at north of $3 billion.

Online pools have only fueled the betting frenzy.

Sandbox.com, for example, an interactive sports and entertainment company, is offering $10 million to anyone who enters its online pool and correctly picks the outcome of all the games, said William Carey, Sandbox's COO and co-founder.

More than 615,000 contestants filled out Sandbox's online brackets last year, all of whom were eliminated by the end of the second round. That isn't surprising, considering there are about 9 quintillion possible outcomes.

Pretty good odds for Sandbox, especially since its online pool is expected to generate $3 million in direct marketing and advertising revenue this year.

Popularity surge

Some basketball fans and analysts believe that 1985 was the year March Madness and its pools began surging in popularity. That's when the NCAA expanded the field of teams from 48 to 64, meaning millions of more people across the country have some sort of connection to at least one school in the tournament.

Increased TV coverage has also dramatically boosted the popularity of NCAA pools. CBS which recently signed an 11-year, $6 billion contract with the NCAA for the rights to televise the tournament airs the games from early in the morning until late at night during the first four days of the tournament, with only a few 30 or 40 minute breaks between games.

"It's literally all hoops, all the time," said Mark Edwards, one local March Madness fanatic.

Edwards said the timing of the tournament also encourages betting.

"The Super Bowl is over, baseball hasn't started and the NBA championship games are months away, so a lot of sports fans, like me, are starved for the kind of sporting and betting excitement that March Madness provides," Edwards said.

The sudden-death format of the tournament also increases the dramatic tension of the games for sports fans and gamblers.

"It only takes one player to have a really good or really bad day and suddenly a little team like Princeton is knocking off a top-seeded team like UCLA," Edwards said. "That kind of unpredictability is what makes the games so exciting and the pools so fun anyone can win, even buffoons who don't know squat about basketball."

Higher stakes

Edwards said the stakes in March Madness pools may be higher than usual locally this year since the West bracket's Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games will be played in Anaheim and since UCLA has been playing well and may remain "at the dance" a bit longer than expected.

Illegal wagers aside, for those sports fans who may be heading to Vegas, here are a few points to ponder:

At least one No. 12 seeded team has defeated a No. 5 seeded team every season since 1988.

A No. 16 seed has never defeated a No. 1 seed.

Duke was the last team to win back-to-back championships (in the early 1990s) since UCLA ran off an unprecedented seven straight championships in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In at least one bracket, a Cinderella team is going to emerge like Gonzaga or Valpairaso.

Now, let the Madness begin!

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