Placing Bets on the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament
Since their humble beginnings in a Staten Island bar in the ’70s, March Madness brackets have brought jubilation and heartache to millions. Accessibility is key to their appeal: You don’t need deep gambling expertise to take part, and even the experts’ brackets bust eventually. In 2018, for instance, no bracket made it past the first round unblemished. Apologies to all the “bracketologists” out there, but after upsets like UMBC’s takedown of top-seeded Virginia, picking teams based on their mascots starts to seem like a sound strategy.
We set out to study how March Madness inspires diehards and non-fans alike to fill out brackets, and which methods they use to pick winners. To do so, we surveyed more than 1,000 people, ranging from total novices to those obsessed with college basketball. We also asked how much cash they put up to participate in their pools, and which teams they pegged to take home the title. Keep reading to see how Americans partake in the madness of March.
Bracket entries seemed to be relatively evenly distributed among genders: Over 54% of March Madness participants were male, whereas nearly 46% identified as women. Critics have long taken issue with the scarcity of TV time afforded the women’s tournament, but at the least, pool participation doesn’t slant so decidedly toward one sex. The tournament’s appeal also extended to all age groups, although millennial participation did outpace that of older generations. Tell that to Stephen F. Austin coach Kyle Keller, who recently claimed today’s millennials “don’t even watch college basketball” while bemoaning his team’s loss to Texas Tech.
While more than 6 in 10 who filled out brackets identified as “knowledgeable” fans of college basketball, novices were well-represented as well. Nearly 28% said they were entirely unknowledgeable, whereas just over 11% felt they fell somewhere in between. But if so many who fill out brackets possess little knowledge of each team, what processes do they use to pick winners?
Methods to the Madness?
According to our findings, more than a quarter of March Madness bettors employed the magic of “intuition” to make their picks. What else could prompt someone to predict Cinderella stories, such as South Carolina’s run to the Final Four in 2017 or Loyola-Chicago’s success the next year? Others favored crunching the numbers, including the nearly 18% of pool participants who relied on statistics to make their picks. While math can’t save your bracket from upset disruption, it does pay off in some cases. A Davidson math professor helps his class model tournament outcomes, and his students finish in the 99th percentile of ESPN brackets every year.
Interestingly, men and women both prized intuition over any other method, but female fans were more disposed to privilege a personal connection to a given school. Among men, conversely, a statistics-based approach was the second-most common tactic. Intuition was also the most common mode of making picks for knowledgeable and unknowledgeable fans alike. For all their expertise, a large slice of diehard fans apparently trusts their gut once March rolls around.
Expertise vs. Outcomes
Do those with college basketball knowledge actually succeed more often than the novices, or does their knowledge prove useless once the tournament gets rolling? Our findings suggest knowledgeable participants win their bracket pools only slightly more often than those with no prior basketball knowledge. Just 11.4% of knowledgeable participants won a pool, while 7.7% of unknowledgeable fans claimed the same.
This difference could be entirely attributable to the fact that expert fans have had more opportunities: On average, they played for over twice as many years as uninformed fans had. An even smaller gap was evident between men and women, with 11.4% of men winning a pool in the past relative to 9.4% of female fans. Here too, the number of attempts could explain away the difference between genders: Men played for many more years on average, giving them more chances to take home a win.
How Big They Bet
Estimates suggest Americans bet roughly $10 billion on March Madness every year, most of it under the table in casual pools of friends, family, and colleagues. Our data suggest individuals typically chip in less than $50 to take part in their pools each year, although spending differed substantially according to expertise. Knowledgeable fans spent more than $56 on bracket entries on average, whereas unknowledgeable fans averaged less than $30. It’s safe to assume these pools owe part of their popularity to these relatively modest costs – it’s hard to imagine so many uninformed players taking part in a competition that costs hundreds to enter.
Turning to differences in gender, men spent roughly $7 more to enter their bracket pools than women. While that finding could be attributed to different traits among the sexes, the disparity could have a simpler economic explanation. Thanks to the gender pay gap, women currently earn roughly 20% less than men do. Factoring in that difference in available funds, it seems men and women are probably betting with roughly equal abandon.
The Winners That Weren’t
Concerning picking overall winners, 2018 was a better year for uninformed fans than the experts. Knowledgeable bracket participants picked Duke most often, a prediction that tanked in the Elite Eight. Conversely, unknowledgeable folks pinned their hopes to Villanova most often, a choice that would serve them well through the Final Four in San Antonio. Duke was also the top pick among men, whereas Villanova was favored among female bettors.
Other common picks proved disastrous, however: Nearly 1 in 10 selected Virginia to take home the title and saw their hopes crash and burn in the aforementioned UMBC upset. Interestingly, Michigan State was the fourth most popular pick, despite sharing a tough regional assignment with Kansas and Duke. Perhaps fans gave too much credence to the utterings of experts: Michigan State was a popular sleeper pick among pundits.
Beyond the Busted Bracket
Our results demonstrate the broad appeal of March Madness, both for casual and committed fans. And although the odds of winning a bracket pool might seem slim, the benefits of participating extend beyond a possible payday. For a few weeks every year, you can enjoy emotional investment in dozens of high-stakes games, and then sideline your passion until next year. For some of the best drama in college sports, there’s no month like March.
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Utilizing Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, we collected 1,027 respondents who filled out an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket. 54.3% of our participants were men and 45.7% were women. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 74 with a mean of 34.9 and a standard deviation of 10.3. Any person that did not fill out at least one bracket this year was excluded. We weighted the data to the 2017 U.S. census for age and gender.
Fair Use Statement
Feel free to share our data and graphics with your own audience for noncommercial purposes. We just ask that you link back to this page to credit us appropriately. If you don’t, we’ll make like Virginia and get upset (too soon, Cavaliers?).