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March Madness is Here, and with it a Cultural Phenomenon Surrounding NCAA Basketball Brackets

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Old Dominion University math professor J. Mark Dorrepaal has loved numbers his whole life. When he was in kindergarten in Windsor, Ontario, he memorized the number pattern of city buses going by his family home.

So, when the NCAA Tournament rolls around each year, Dorrepaal finds the sheer mathematics of the bracket sheet irresistible.

Tournament play-in games begin Tuesday night, and millions of Americans are now ramping up strategies to indulge in a cultural phenomenon - filling out game brackets for pool competitions. The American Gaming Association estimates 40 million Americans will fill out more than 70 million brackets this year and wager approximately $9 billion on the NCAA tournament.

"With the four play-in games you have 68 teams," Dorrepaal said. "That means in a single elimination tournament, there are 67 games. So the number of possible outcomes would be 10 to the 20th power."

Of course, a 16 seed has never defeated a one seed, which means probability dramatically reduces the number of likely NCAA Tournament outcomes, yet other upsets are relatively common. Being armed with a mathematician's brain can be an unexpected challenge for someone like Dorrepaal when filling out a bracket.

"I would probably just go with the higher seeds," he said.

The spread of websites like ESPN have made filling out a bracket so simple, even the most casual fan can take part in March Madness, said Stephen Shapiro, associate professor of sport management and an expert in sport consumer behavior. "It's just so easy to do," he said.

But having success picking the correct teams is another matter.

With more than 9 quadrillion possible outcomes for unpredictable games, billionaire financier Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans offered a $1 billion prize for a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket in 2014. There were no perfect brackets left after two days of the three-week NCAA Tournament that year.

"I think the complexity of it makes it really popular," Shapiro said. "A person who knows all about the tournament and the teams can do as well as someone who picks teams because of mascots."

Shapiro said mass media and social media discussion about the NCAA Tournament in mid-March makes it impossible to avoid hearing about people's brackets. "For the last eight years, the President of the United States had an ESPN special where he filled out his bracket," he noted.

Jason Parker, a lecturer in Old Dominion's Department of Psychology, said the spectacle of the NCAA Tournament magnifies the allure for casual observers. "We as people seem to like a 'big festival' or event every month or so. We're not as far from ancient Rome as many think," he said.

The allegiance of fans to their team adds even more interest.

"We have the same hormonal-endorphin release as the players when they win or lose," Parker said. "We celebrate the win the same and feel the same low for the loss - only not for as long."

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