28 October 2016
It's a safe bet that the Holy Cross team, a late entrant to March Madness, won't make it all the way this year. Photo:
It's a safe bet that the Holy Cross team, a late entrant to March Madness, won't make it all the way this year. Photo:

March Madness – like the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, only better

With the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens pushed to April this year, many a Hong Kong punter will be looking to fill the void.

Enter March Madness — also known as the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s Division I basketball tournament — one of America’s biggest sporting events.

Granted, Hong Kong isn’t a big college basketball town.

But for bettors, the tournament’s unpredictability and crazy odds should entice many to put some skin in the game.

For starters, March Madness features 64 teams (versus the Sevens’ paltry 28) competing over almost three weeks (versus three days).

Betting odds are astronomical.

Today, for example, the odds are 100,000 to 1 that Holy Cross, an obscure college in Worcester, Massachusetts, that earned its tournament berth just on Sunday, will be the last team standing.

And for people playing the office pool — in which perfection comes in the form of picking the winner of every single game — there are over nine quintillion different bracket combinations.

(That’s a nine, followed by 18 zeroes. If filled out by hand at a rate of one bracket per second, it would take you over 292 billion years to complete the pool, according to the Washington Post.)

Two years ago, Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett offered US$1 billion to anybody who could pick a perfect bracket.

There was no payout.

March Madness betting is projected to top US$9.2 billion this year through office pools, Nevada sports books and online, the American Gaming Association says.

More than 40 million Americans will fill out brackets in advance of Thursday’s opening round, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The total number of completed brackets is expected to top 70 million this year, with the average participant betting about US$29 on each one, the association says.

Employers will have a lot riding on the tournament as well.

With millions of workers focused on their office pools, lost productivity is expected to cost more than US$3.9 billion in the first week alone, the Tribune reports, citing Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

In Hong Kong, American expats, for whom making bracket picks this time of year is a sacred annual ritual, are getting more and more Hongkongers in on the action.

“If you are working in a US office anywhere in the world, you will probably get hit up and/or coerced to join the office pool,” said Angela, an expat from Pullman, Washington, who has lived in Hong Kong for 11 years.

“Otherwise, you risk being ostracized and banished from the water cooler banter and ensuing trash talk,” she said.

Speaking of a particularly pivotal recent year for her Indiana Hoosiers, Brittany, an editor for The Wall Street Journal who has worked between Hong Kong and Beijing for seven years, says the biggest obstacle to joining the March Madness mayhem is the time difference.

“A 7 p.m. game in Bloomington airs at 8 a.m. Hong Kong time. Good luck finding a sports bar in Hong Kong showing an Indiana-Northwestern game at 8 p.m., let alone one open for business at 8 a.m.,” she said.

This year, that problem is solved, as availability by video streaming is nearly ubiquitous anywhere in the world.

For example, QQ Sports, Tencent’s flagship sports portal, launched an ESPN sports section for Greater China last month in a deal that covers the NCAA March Madness basketball championship, as well as 100 regular season college games, the X Games and National Basketball Association basketball.

For those curious about who gets to play in the tournament and how the tournament works, it only sounds mind-numbing.

There are 351 NCAA Division I college basketball teams, split into 32 conferences.

Each conference has its own tournament prior to March Madness to determine its conference champion.

Each conference champion, as well as all the teams ranked from 25th to first nationally, automatically get into the tournament.

The rest of the 64 teams are elected into the tournament by a selection committee, which comprises the athletic directors of 10 colleges across the country.

Of the teams elected, four are “play-in” teams; they face off before the “big dance”, with the winners included in the tournament.

Holy Cross, the team with only one chance in 100,000 to win the championship, is a “play-in” team.

(Are you still with me?)

After all 64 teams are selected, the tournament begins.

The first four days of the tournament — while a huge deal because it is comprised of watching about 90 hours of basketball and mass consumption of beer — are actually only the first two rounds.

At the end of the day this Sunday, there will be 16 teams remaining in the tournament — the Sweet Sixteen.

Over the next two weeks, those will be whittled down to the Elite Eight, and finally, the teams claiming victory in the East, West, South, and MidWest divisions will become the Final Four.

Then, those teams play each other, with one crowned the champion.

I’m pretty sure it won’t be Holy Cross.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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