March Madness in workplace
By Hal Habib, Palm Beach Post Staff
Thursday, March 20, 2003
It's not about the money. A good cynic snickers every time
he hears that phrase, but in the case of NCAA Tournament
office pools, well, it really isn't about the money, is
Because long after the $75 you've won has been spent buying
everyone pizza to prove you're such a swell person, only one
time-tested reward remains -- the chance to prance into work
and, in a chipper voice, remind your humiliated co-workers, "I
HAD THE ZAGS!!!"
"The money's nice, but I'd rather have the bragging
rights," says one office pool player. The man, a construction
worker, would identify himself only as Will. Must be an ego
thing, because when he's asked what it's like to hold those
bragging rights, he says: "I can't tell you. I haven't won
yet. You just try to walk away (from the winners). You try to
Whether you're wimping out and going with Arizona and
Kentucky or taking a stab at Florida or Pittsburgh (Will's
team), March Madness offers a unique bonding opportunity for
executives and secretaries, clerks and managers, to join as
one in saying, "Huh? What's an IUPUI?" Then we pass out our
Xeroxed brackets and wait for the chance to shriek, "Jaspers!
Knew it all along!!!"
"It's great," says Courtney Yergens, 29, a real estate
broker from Boca Raton who has won "once or twice," which
qualifies him to supply his full name. "Usually you end up
losing the next week, but for that day, you're king of the
There's no way to say for certain how many millions are at
stake in NCAA office pools, but chances are you've either
participated in one or worked in an office that has held one.
There are people today who study office pools, Web sites that
analyze them and Web sites that analyze the Web sites. There
are people such as Edward Kaplan, a professor at Yale, and
Brad Carlin, a professor at Minnesota, who admit they have
spent a "mind-boggling" amount of time trying to unlock the
secrets to winning these things.
Most of the time, Kaplan has more important things to worry
about -- little things such as presidential elections and
smallpox risks -- but a few years ago, he contracted a severe
case of office pool fever.
"I was attending a conference overseas on serious stuff and
I had jet lag, so I was up in the middle of the night," says
Kaplan, 47. "You can do two things: You can go see the
nightlife or you can write computer programs for basketball
tournaments, and of course I did the latter. It's a very
hookable problem, as evidenced by the fact that you called me
to ask about it."
Kaplan and his fancy little computer placed in the 99.79th
percentile in that CBS SportsLine contest, the most dominant
performance by a computer since HAL in 2001: A Space
"My last Final Four team didn't come through," Kaplan says.
"So the moral of the story is don't bet on Tulsa."
Kaplan now will toss out something like the probability of
Creighton making noise in The Big Dance to perk up students
when they're slumping in their desks, and he makes no
apologies for it.
"What's the most important problem in the world right now?"
he asks. "It's obviously March Madness."
Carlin and a former student put their heads together and
published a paper titled How to Play Office Pools If You
Must, which tells you everything you need to know about
how deep in the pool he is.
"There's some pressure at work," Carlin says. "You have a
guy organizing a pool, and you feel like a dweeb if you're the
only guy on the sidelines with a big pool. Certainly it has
the appeal of a lottery: You put in a few bucks and the payoff
might be several hundred dollars, so you have the notion of a
cheap thrill. And it makes the games more interesting to
That's the case for John Challenger, CEO of Challenger,
Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm with a Fort
"Maybe this is the reason the NCAA Tournament has kind of
come of age in the last decade," says Challenger, whose
company analyzed the effects of pools in the workplace. "It's
made it up to the big leagues, like the Super Bowl and the
World Series. Maybe the reason is you've got all these guys
like me, and gals, who get in a pool, then start watching it.
There's a raison d'etre there for turning on that tube,
reading the newspaper, finding out who the players are and
what the personalities are."
A raison d'etre? That's what Challenger calls it,
but Robert Van Reeth calls it something else.
"Second-degree misdemeanor," Van Reeth says. "Illegal.
Unlawful to be on the result of any trial or contest of skill,
etc. Florida State Statue 849.14."
Who is Van Reeth, and who invited him to this pool party,
anyway? He's the assistant chief for West Palm Beach police,
and in a stern voice he points out you could face six months
in the naughty kind of slammer and a $500 fine for
We ask him if he has ever been in an office pool,
and suddenly he's not so stern.
"I've been in a few," he says sheepishly. "I didn't realize
they were illegal. I'm the first one to admit that. All of a
sudden I got hit right between the eyes and said, 'You're
kiddin' me?' No. The bottom line is, it ceased
Van Reeth is beginning to sound stern again, so we figure
it's a good time to point out that The Palm Beach Post
has a policy forbidding office pools. He sounds pleased.
"We're not going to have a SWAT team going in there," he
In truth, you're more likely to see Austin Peay hoisting
the trophy in New Orleans on April 7 than you are a cop
cracking your office pool ring. The few times the West Palm
Beach police have uncovered pools, they usually told the
offenders they're illegal, so knock it off.
"Right now our No. 1 priority is preventing terrorist
attacks," a spokesman for the FBI in Miami says. "I don't
think our best resources would be served investigating office
pools. There aren't people going out and actively getting into
office pools and setting up a sting."
There are exceptions. One organization had a pot that
swelled to $90,000. You might have heard of it: Enron.
The $5 office pool bust
And there are other exceptions that might make your head
Claire Newell was tending her business as technical support
specialist for the Rhode Island department of elementary and
secondary education in 1992 when two men came knocking on her
"Wow," Newell thought. "Who's these two good-looking
"We're from the state police," they said. "We're inquiring
about an office pool."
"Oh, God," Newell said. "Are you serious?"
Next thing she knew, she was at headquarters, booked and
fingerprinted over a $210 pool that cost $5 to enter. The
prosecutor wouldn't drop the case, but in the end, Newell got
First, she ended up with a year of unsupervised probation,
thanks to lawyer David Cicilline, who represented her pro
bono. He's kind of important in Rhode Island nowadays -- he's
mayor of Providence. Second, she never got it expunged from
her record "because I think it's funny," says Newell, 45. And
finally, she maintains a certain level of celebrity that peaks
every March. The question "Who do you like?" inevitably comes
up at family reunions, and when she got called for jury duty
once, she got to look her prosecutor right in the eye
"The judge even asked me, 'Well, whatever happened with
that? I had the lawyers all around me. 'Wow. You're
"I think it's funny now. At the time I didn't because I
could have lost my job. I think back and it's an only-me type
NCAA opposes them
One person who has little sympathy is Bill Saum. He's the
NCAA's director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities.
The NCAA frowns on office pools. A lot.
"We think it sends the wrong message," Saum says. "We would
encourage folks to do what I would call 'bracket selection
contests.' Fill out the bracket, have the same people in it,
see if I can pick better than you, but let's not put any money
"Having said that, I don't want to appear naive. Is putting
a buck in a pool going to have an impact on the tournament?
No, it's not. But it's where you draw the line. Once you get
past a dollar, the significance in the amount of money that's
entered varies from individual to individual. We're aware of
pools where it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to
They're also aware of Internet contests involving their
broadcast partners, CBS and ESPN. The NCAA successfully
lobbied CBS to drop its affiliation with a Las Vegas site, but
ESPN.com continues to offer a $15,000 contest. Saum said the
NCAA is leaning on the network to be a "positive broadcast
partner in regards to sports wagering."
But don't pools increase interest in the tournament?
"We don't believe that the pool increases viewership or the
popularity of the tournament," Saum says. "We don't believe
betting does. There's no study that exists that I'm familiar
with. It is certainly something I've read people say, but
think about some of the people who participate in pools that
you have been around. Those people don't sit down and watch
the tournament. Certainly on Monday morning they come and and
see where they are, just for fun, but they're not watching the
tournament. And the people that are watching the tournament
would watch it anyway. So our position is betting does not
bring more viewership."
"They're nuts," Challenger says. "They have to hide
themselves behind a massive wall."
A boost for companies?
Challenger, who is in two pools, took into account the
average hourly wage of workers and a variety of other factors
and concluded that if the average worker spent 10 minutes a
day talking about the tournament these next few weeks, it will
cost employers $1.4 billion. Yet Challenger -- a CEO himself
-- doesn't think this is bad.
"All in all, with the strain over the war, with the sour
economy and the job insecurity, I'd say this is the kind of
thing companies ought to be embracing. That lost productivity
is a gigantic number, but companies need to find ways to bring
their people together.''
Frank Scanlan sees two sides to it. He's the media affairs
manager for The Society for Human Resource Management, which
in January 2002 conducted an unscientific online survey that
showed 71 percent of companies either allow pools or aren't
worried about them. In a 1999 SHRM survey, 56 percent of
respondents said productivity was unaffected by pools.
"There are employees who are morally opposed to gambling in
the workplace," Scanlan says. "Nearly every state has laws
against this type of gambling, and they may have employees who
have had an addiction to gambling, so it's something employers
need to be concerned about. It can help camaraderie, it can
help with projects down the road, but there's also a
Pools come in all shapes and sizes, with scoring systems
basic or so complex you're better off letting the Internet
calculate your standings. Jacksonville-based Enter Sports Inc.
runs an Internet contest called "March Madnet," and it says
something about the money-vs.-bragging rights issue that even
though the contest no longer offers cash -- only T-shirts and
trophies -- it still gets about 23,000 entries.
"You know how it is in sports," Enter Sports President
Steve Cheski says. "They play for the glory as much as for a
chance to compete. It's amazing. We'll open it up Sunday
night, and as soon as we open the contest, people start
playing, which always amazed me because they really haven't
had time to look at the brackets."
(Warning to bosses: You might want to skip this next
"They're playing from the office," Cheski says. "As a
matter of fact, we can watch the traffic peak on the hour,
starting at 8 a.m., then 9 a.m., and it goes like that until
about 1 in the afternoon. I'm assuming that's because of the
So there you have it. The countdown is on until 8 a.m., or
9 or 10 a.m., on April 8. That's when the pools will end --
and the talk will really begin.