March Madness Thoughts (and Pizza)

March 30, 2014

Fifty-nine games played, and by the time some of you read this, that number will be 60. There will be 63 total games—not counting those play-in games on the first Tuesday—in NCAA March Madness, the post-season Division 1 men’s basketball tournament. In the end there will have been lots of fun, some money exchanges between regular people, lots of coin changing hands at the sports books in Las Vegas and elsewhere, plenty of ad revenue for CBS and TBS, and a strong sense in host cities that they receive an economic boost from hosting part of the tournament, actual numbers notwithstanding. Oh, there will also be a National Champion!!!

Every year storiesstories, and more stories appear about the loss of productivity associated with workers on account of March Madness. Count me not impressed! Admittedly, I’ve never worked on an assembly line, where minding games might slow things down a bit. But I think the articles/studies focus on office work, so phooey on the notion that GM or Ford won’t be meeting its production quotas on Thursdays and Fridays in March.

Unfortunately, few are the pieces that even mention the morale boost associated with the tournament and the pleasure it gives people. Or the fact that most office pools with which I am familiar include the CEO and the clerical staff, bridging an ever-widening gap between haves and have-nots. (I just started Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty—very good so far, and surprisingly readable for an economics book that was first written in French—and noted Mr. Piketty’s observations about the limitations of economics. Counting matters, certainly, but it also matters what you count, and we cannot count everything that matters.)

This year Warren Buffett joined the party. His offer:  complete an on-line bracket form for Quicken Home Loans. If you call all 63 games correctly, you win $1,000,000,000.00. That’s a billion dollars, one of 50+ in Mr. Buffett’s possession. Actually, as it is with lotteries, words don’t always mean what they say:  the prize is 40 annual payments of $25,000,000, or $500,000,000 right now.

Slate writer David Sarno analyzed the deal in Don’t Take Warren Buffett’s Bracket Challenge on March 14. No great harm in the whole thing, I suppose, but it’s worth noting that Mr. Sarno reports as a fact that Mr. Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, sold Quicken an insurance policy to cover the risk that someone would win the billion dollars. (I’m not certain about the source of the $1,000,000,000.00 payment.) Also important? No perfect entries—from among 15 million—existed by midway through the second full day of tournament. (In my firm’s on-line pool, which includes 74 entries, the leader right now has picked 43 of 59 games correctly.) Also worth a mention is the fact that Quicken Home Loans got lots of contact information for its marketing efforts for next to nothing. Yes, there was a large charitable gift, but the cost/benefit analysis definitely favored Mr. Buffett and Quicken. G-d Bless Capitalism, American-style.

Alas, the magic ended for us last night! I say “us” to note how, as a season progresses when it progresses well, “the team” no longer requires a name, and all manner of possessive nouns come into play, big-time. No doubt, community develops around a successful college basketball team. Playing 30-plus games surely helps, as does the proximity associated with the players, the court, and the seats in the arena. The players—with many of whom fans are on a uni-directional first-name basis—can be seen, not hidden behind pads, a bulky uniform, and a helmet. And did I mention winning games?

I hope I don’t sound critical, for I’m not. I have watched, engaged, and enjoyed, and I’m taking money and at least two weekly lunches off my best friend yet again this year. That said, however, a recipe for transforming the energy and enthusiasm for “the team” into a focused effort to solve community issues—call it alchemy, or whatever—would be way cool! (No credit claimed for this thought:  a wise old man raised the issue with me a few weeks ago, after one of the team’s late season losses.)

Now, we did enjoy ourselves watching Arizona play Wisconsin in the Elite Eight game on Saturday night. The food was fine, and the company was better. (Salad with potato croutons for a gluten free friend, and veggie and meat pies for the dough boys!) Alas, the other team scored more points, “and that’s the way it is.”


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