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Ncaa Pools Breathe Energy Into Workplace

TUESDAY, MARCH 21, 1995

Madness isn’t confined to the basketball court. It’s in office corridors, elevators and cafeterias across the country.

It’s a buzz of scores, seeds and stats coupled with an overriding belief that upsets are good. Unless you picked UCLA.

If you work in an office, chances are you’ve taken a dip in a pool. An NCAA Tournament office pool, that is.

Sixty-four teams are invited to play in the NCAA’s Division I men’s basketball championship tournament. If you aren’t a hoop fan or alum of one of these schools, the road to the Final Four would have little interest for your life.

Pools give you someone to root for. Mostly, yourself.

Few people get rich off office pools. This isn’t the state lottery; no instant millionaires here. What’s at stake is bragging rights and, yes, some money, too.

We play because we want to be No.1 among our co-workers. We play because we want to win. We’re a nation of gamblers and sports fanatics. The NCAA office pool lets us roll the two into one three-week frenzy.

A recent Associated Press poll showed 115 million Americans bet on sporting events. For 90 percent of these folks, betting is a social thing, something to do with friends.

Legal gambling on NCAA Tournament games is confined to Nevada, where the action is, as usual, hot.

“It’s getting bigger every year,” says Vince Magliulo, oddsmaker at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. “It wouldn’t shock me if we surpassed $50 million statewide this year.”

But nationwide, office pools are bigger. Most people invest only a few bucks, but those small wagers add up. Estimates by gambling pros range up to $300 million. That’s probably a low figure.

“They’re illegal as hell but everyone does it,” says Harlan Elges of Nevada’s State Gaming Control Board. “We keep no statistical data on pools, but figure this: How much money is in your own office pool? Multiply that by the number of businesses in your state, then the nation. That will give you an idea.”

In the office, pools are as ubiquitous as copy machines. In fact, a copier is a necessary part of running a pool. How else will all those pool sheets get distributed?

“I don’t give any sheets to the bosses,” says one longtime pool organizer. “I don’t want them to question how I’m using the copy machine.”

Pools connect people who otherwise never speak to one another, even though they work in the same building. They give us a new commonality. This week, someone can say, “I took Manhattan,” and get instant respect after the New York City school upset Oklahoma in the first round.

Suddenly, we’re chatting about Jaspers, Bearcats and Sun Devils in the halls. Colleges can do more for their nationwide reputations with an NCAA win than a trophy case full of academic awards.

Office pools are cheap fun. “It’s an easy way to spend $5 and it lasts for three weeks,” says an Orange County, Calif., pool fanatic. He entered twice, taking North Carolina on one sheet, Arkansas on the other.

“Each year, picking the winner gets more difficult,” he continues, speaking from experience. He’s been running an NCAA pool for 15 years. “We started with about 15 guys and $2 (to buy into the game). Now, we have close to 100 at $5 each.”“When I retire, that’s what I’ll be remembered for: running the NCAA pool,” he adds.

Even the NCAA has a pool at its headquarters in Overland Park, Kan.

The organization is staunchly against gambling on its events and does not encourage betting of any kind. But a pool?

“Pools are a fun way to follow the tournament, which is all it is for most people,” says spokeswoman Kathryn Reith.

No money changes hands. “It’s strictly for office bragging rights,” said Reith.



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