Selection Sunday is one of my favorite days of the sports year, a bigger rush for me than the Super Bowl, maybe in line with Game 7 of the World Series or the Opening Ceremony of an Olympics.
Filling out a March Madness bracket is a seasonal thing, as tied to the changing of the seasons as Christmas is to the winter season.
No sports tradition in America comes without a financial element. People love to gamble, they love sports, and betting on March Madness brackets is an ideal overlap of those thing.
This post offers tips and details on March Madness brackets and betting.
March Madness Brackets – the Basics
This section is for the uninitiated who want to take part in March Madness bracket pools and bets. If you’re already familiar with the basics of this tournament and its infamous brackets, move on to the next section.
March Madness is the informal name given to the annual NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. It’s taken place every year since 1939. It’s steeped in history and followed by obsessive fans. There’s literally a phenomenon whereby men schedule elective surgeries during the tournament’s final rounds in order to be stuck on the couch recovering.
The tournament is single-elimination – lose once and you’re out. That ramps up the drama, a seven-round contest pitting Davids against Goliaths for nationwide bragging rights.
Each tournament finds teams seeded, ranked in terms of their perceived abilities, and placed in specific contests against one another based on that seed. The resulting layout, known as a bracket, is one of the sport’s world’s biggest icons.
Filling out a bracket means making a prediction about every game in the tournament, starting with the first round and moving all the way to championship game. With 66 teams in each tournament, the odds of any person picking a perfect bracket (in which every game’s outcome is selected perfectly) are 1 in 9.2 quintillion, a ridiculous number so big we can’t really conceive of it.
Attempts to make that perfect bracket are ranked against one another in formal and informal contests. This is the main way people bet on their March Madness bracket – by creating their set of bracket picks and comparing them head-to-head against other people’s picks.
I like to think of March Madness bracket betting in two broad categories – formal contests, hosted at bars, sportsbooks, daily fantasy sites, and casinos, and informal contests, usually between friends or other social groups. Not all of these informal contests involve money, but plenty of them do.
Let’s look at each of these broad categories to get a sense of what betting on NCAA brackets is like.
Formal March Madness Bracket Contests
March Madness brackets are a huge social and cultural phenomenon, so naturally the big corporations found ways to get involved. ESPN, Yahoo!, and a bunch of other media outlets host real-money and clout-only bracket contests, and you can go ahead and include all of the major sportsbooks and DFS providers to that list.
Prize pools vary depending on the size of the player pool, the popularity of the host of the game, and the rules and procedures of each contest. DraftKings usually offers some huge jackpot like $1 million or whatever. Some of these contests require a perfect bracket for payout, a rare thing that’s almost never happened. Other contests, like those at DraftKings and FanDuel, pay out to the top finishers regardless of the bracket’s perfect or unbusted status.
Some contests, like the one beer brand Yuengling sponsors every year, reward points for successful picks and pay out winnings based on point totals. The top prize in last year’s March Mania Battle was $50,000, though 7,700+ participants won some prize, with a $50 minimum payout.
Lots of smaller contests have popped up around these growing markets – DraftKings and FanDuel both offer “second-chance” contests for people with badly busted brackets. These have smaller prize pools than the main contests, but they’re popular simply because picking bracket winners is hard and lots of people get busted early on.
Usually, you’ll need to create an account or join a site to participate. Some require a financial investment, others don’t.
Informal March Madness Bracket Betting
These are the most common NCAA Tournament bracket contests – informal bets between friends, family members, or coworkers.
The contests may be as simple as “whoever has the best bracket wins the pot,” or they may involve complex point-scoring systems, where players win points for correct picks. Determining winners by points makes paying out multiple prizes easier, while winner-takes-all contests may prefer to just reward the longest-lasting bracket overall.
A note on the legality of this form of gambling – it’s not totally clear how the federal government feels on these casual sports bets. It is clear that federal gambling law is aimed at illegal gaming providers, big-money players that are hosting illegal bets, and not people putting $5 into a March Madness office pool. In any US state where social or private gambling is a recognized legal activity, informal March Madness bets shouldn’t get anyone in trouble.
Basic NCAA Bracket Strategy
For casual fans who want to improve their bracket contest chances, here’s four tips to immediately improve your game:
Go ahead and pick favorites. This is called making chalk picks – essentially, you just chalk in the higher-seeded team and go about your day. There’s no shame in making this kind of pick when the odds you’re up against are in the quintillions.
Give lots of credit to prior champions. NCAA domination requires the creation of a dynasty, or at least a mini-dynasty. The best teams win again and again, and usually in cycles. This isn’t a freak or a mistake, it’s baked into the difficulty of the game and the difficulty of dealing with athletes in the middle of a transition out of adolescence.
Pick based on something silly. There’s as much validity to picking based on school colors (my wife’s favorite method) as picking based on stats or prior performance. Picking this way keeps my wife interested, which leads to a happier home (and less contentious remote control) every March.
Pick a 12 seed to win in the first round. The 12 seed hype is very real. March Madness is known for upsets between 12-seeded teams and their higher-ranked opponents. To date, we’ve seen more than fifty such upsets. Pick your favorite 12-seed team and rock with them. You can’t do much worse than random chance anyway.
NCAA March Madness Bracket Odds
Here’s how March Madness works:
Bring 66 teams of kids around age 19 together from all over the country. Make sure some of them are from tiny colleges and some are from massive state schools. Surround them with media, with money, with flash and circumstance. Shake them together for a few weeks. Pretend to be shocked that the results are unpredictable.
You could say there’s a lot of volatility in betting on March Madness games and nobody would disagree with you.
I mentioned earlier that the odds against a perfect bracket are some 9 quintillions long. 9.2 quintillion seconds is 292 billion years. That’s the entire history of our universe 1.8 million times.
But this isn’t always true. Skilled bettors have some advantage. It’s hard to quantify exactly how much a person’s basketball knowledge, or knowledge of the NCAA or the teams involved, affects their odds. I found a number quoted in a bunch of blogs and listicles – a skilled bettor may pick a perfect bracket about 1 in 120.2 billion times.
A smart guy named Joel Sokol created a statistical model that picks NCAA winners about 75% of the time. Even using that model, the odds of a perfect bracket selection are like 1 in 10 billion. And there’s no way Joel is going to just, like, give you his model for free.
It would take 366 years for a perfect bracket to materialize even if every man, woman, and child in America picked a decently-accurate (66%) bracket every single year. Ouch.
Has it ever happened? Not in a recorded way. The closest we know anyone has ever come was 49 games – Gregg Nigl, a scientist from Columbus, Ohio, pulled that off in 2019.
Why Is Picking a Bracket So Hard?
So why is it so hard?
353 teams participate in Division 1 basketball. There’s no way the average bettor can understand all 353 teams well enough to conceive of every possible angle in every combination of teams on mostly neutral sites. It’s too large of a task.
The permutations of 66 teams competing in combinations that have often never been seen before – how often do we see Cal take on Wichita State – make predicting the wins and losses difficult. These bad calls also have domino effects on the rest of the bracket. A bad pick in an early round can snowball into bad picks in later rounds, blocking off big chunks of the bracket.
Making bracket picks is as American as playing Super Bowl squares or buying lottery tickets.
Not all bracket contests involve money, some are for bragging rights or for some other tangible prize.
When you do put money down on your bracket pick, make sure you’re doing it with confidence. There’s some value to picking at random when you’re facing odds this long though educated picks do seem to have an impact on short-term results.
Take your time, trust your gut, and make sure your bets on March Madness improve your enjoyment of the games.