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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Bracket Is Required for Web Pool Party

Friends and co-workers organize online to take the hassle out of managing March Madness entries.

March 15, 2006|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

March used to be maddening for Randy Edgar. When the NCAA men's basketball tournament rolled around, dozens of friends swamped his fax machine with bracket picks for what became known as the "Guru Pool."

Duty called, so Edgar worked into the night, transferring picks to an Excel spreadsheet, drawing the brackets and faxing the results to about 40 competitors scattered around the country. The advent of e-mail reduced Edgar's workload, but "it was still horrible," the Oakland resident said. "I had to [chart] all of the standings after the games and e-mail those out every night."

The business of picking winners remains challenging, Edgar said, but the annual pool is now a breeze, thanks to a small online company that automates the time-consuming business of charting brackets, scoring point totals and sharing the results with contestants. Said Edgar: "It's an absolute no-brainer to use."

The websites -- the equivalent of Christmas tree lots that pop up for a few weeks before the holiday -- hope to turn a profit by making it easier for fans to chart March Madness bracket contests.

There's no shortage of fans willing to put down a wager.

During last year's tournament, the Gallup Poll reported that nearly half of men surveyed described themselves as college basketball fans; about a third of women also admitted to March Madness.

Consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas factored the poll results into a formula that estimated lost productivity during the next few weeks at $3.8 billion.

There's also plenty of cash to fill the office pools.

Any attempt to measure NCAA-related gambling would be "a pure guess because gamblers don't issue financial statements," FBI spokesman Bill Carter said. Suffice to say, Carter added, that billions of dollars again will be wagered this year in pools blessed, at least tacitly, by bosses.

Emily Craig, who is running her Louisville, Ky., employer's office pool for the sixth consecutive year, probably speaks for most office pool operators when she describes the annual exercise as more about team-building than gambling. "I ask the man who owns our company every year ..." said Craig, who added that her boss is usually the first one to hand over a completed bracket after Selection Sunday.

Athletes, coaches, referees and others with the ability to influence the outcome of a game clearly have no business placing bets, said Michael Josephson, president of Los Angeles' Josephson Institute of Ethics. But is March Madness with a monetary interest a bad thing?

"Gambling isn't a good habit to start, but betting in an office pool when it's in moderate amounts is a legitimate form of entertainment," Josephson said. "It's like the company picnic in that it's fun to see who guesses right, who moves up the ladder. We shouldn't try to make more out of it than what it is."

But he draws a line when it comes to newspapers, radio and television stations, and websites to relay Las Vegas point spreads on NCAA games.

As for the NCAA, it continues to push for a world in which amateur athletes are appreciated solely for their talent, not as fodder for a wager. "The message we're trying to send is that money doesn't have to be involved for our tournament and our games to be fun," said Rachel Newman-Baker, the NCAA's director of agents, gambling and amateurism activities.

The NCAA has asked FBI agents to counsel all players on the 16 teams that make it to regional play in the men's and women's tournaments about the dangers of gambling. But although the agency continues to target gambling rings run by organized crime, the FBI has "neither the resources nor the inclination" to police office pools where the entry fee is just a couple of bucks.

That's good news for operators of the online companies that promise to help office pool organizers get their job done.

Pickhoops.com, which Edgar has used for the last two years, charges $9.95 for an application that allows the 40 Guru Pool contestants to enter their data online and incorporates the group's quirky scoring system.

"It really is March Madness for us," said Chris Hehman, president of the Durham, N.C., site, which is handling the Guru Pool for the second year. "We get a trickle of business starting in January, but most of it comes during a two-week period."

The small companies are competing in the considerable online shadow cast by ESPN.com, CBSSportsline.com and other big, sports-oriented websites that have have been touting their free bracket games for weeks.

The lure is prizes rather than gambling, however. ESPN, for example, is offering $10,000 to the first-place finisher.

CDM Fantasy Sports, a St. Louis company known for its fantasy sports league products, concentrates its online bracket games at the Elite Eight level.

"We wanted to have a different spin and not compete head to head with the free games," said CDM Executive Vice President John Brison.

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