March Madness: Winning your office pool

It happens every year, and next week, it'll happen again, and if you're the manager or owner of a company, you may be wondering if you should let it happen: The March Madness office pool.

After all, if people are betting which of their favorite college basketball teams will destroy the others in order to become part of the NCAA's Final Four, then they aren't working. In fact, there's a loss of office productivity, and you're sanctioning illegal gambling. If you're a boss or manager, it's your duty, in fact, to step in and halt March Madness.

Just be willing to be strung up to a ceiling fan and left there to spin all day. And don't blame me. I'll deny every word of this article. In fact, the paragraph above this one? I didn't write it. I'm not sure who did.

Actually, don't worry. As it turns out, there are good business reasons to keep your college basketball office pool going. According to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive, of the 44% of American workers who have participated in an office pool, 45% of them named office camaraderie as the main reason for doing it. Thirty-six percent of the people participating do it for the love of money; 15%, for the love of the game; 2%, pressure from their other co-workers.

In other words, the study suggests that you're actually fostering teamwork if you let your staff participate in a March Madness office pool.

It does make sense that any time co-workers get together to try and win part of your co-worker's salary (it's the American way) or to watch a giant story unfold on a cable news station, like watching a governor of a big state hold a press conference and pretend his career isn't going up in flames, you're building bonds that create a better work environment. With that in mind, I asked John Scally for some tips and insight on organizing a pool--and more importantly, how to win one. Scally, who works in public relations in New York City, is a veteran March Madness office pool, having organized office pools for the last nine years. He also worked for the NCAA Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. And he's a rabid basketball nut.

Scally has a few tips to consider when setting up an office pool.

Know your corporate culture. He suggests not making it all about money. "Remember," says Scally, "it's about office camaraderie and community and not competing with lottery."

Keep it legal. Most states have "social gambling" laws that allow for office pools, says Scally. But all betting must take place in private, entry fees collected need to be distributed in prizes, and the organizer cannot take a cut. "States have limits on how much the winning pot can be worth so check your individual state's laws," he advises.
(Whether Scally's right, that these laws do allow for office pools is debatable -- I found an interesting Newsweek article from a year ago about March Madness that laments "too bad that's illegal in much of the country" -- but it is becoming an unenforceable, antiquated law. The article reports that the FBI estimated that some $2.5 billion were placed on illegal bets, including online gambling sites, bookies and office pools, during the previous year's March Madness pool.

Ditch traditional paper brackets. Scally says that if you take your pool online, co-workers can check their standings whenever they want, from their cubicle or home computer. "Provides less room for error and more time for trash-talking," adds an enthusiastic Scally. He suggests going to CBS Sports or Yahoo Sports for setting up an online office pool.

But how do you win? Scally offers these three bits of insight:

Keep your eye on the prize. "When filling out brackets, the most important pick is the champion," says Scally, "since the final game is weighted the most. Many office pool players focus too much on picking the early round upsets and casually fill in their Final Four teams."

Think reality, not the underdog. "Obscure teams pulling off the improbable upsets grab headlines," says Scally, "but those are the exception rather than the rule. Pick your upsets sparely."

Seniors know best. "Identify teams that start three or more seniors," suggests Scally. "Players facing a career ending loss will find ways to win."

Geoff Williams is primarily a business journalist, though he has written a sports book called C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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