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March Madness built on 'bracketology'

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 11:30 p.m.
Pitt's Trey Zeigler catches some air on Wednesday, March 20, 2013, during practice for the NCAA Tournament in Energy Solutions Arena.
Chaz Palla
Pitt's Trey Zeigler catches some air on Wednesday, March 20, 2013, during practice for the NCAA Tournament in Energy Solutions Arena.

SALT LAKE CITY — James Robinson, Pitt's energetic, effervescent freshman guard, will take the court on Thursday for his first NCAA Tournament game. He'll play under the hot lights of an NBA arena that was home to basketball legends John Stockton and Karl Malone, with 18,000 fans watching inside and millions more on TV.

“It's a dream, really,” Robinson said Wednesday at the end of Pitt's practice at EnergySolutions Arena. “Something you think about from the time you're a little kid.”

Just maybe not how most folks would think.

“You grow up filling out that bracket, just like everybody else, your friends, your family,” Robinson said, “and now you get to be part of it. You know, part of the bracket. That's so cool.”

Beginning Thursday, because of the bracket, everyone gets to be part of it. From start to finish. Which is why there's no American sporting event quite like it.

The NCAA Tournament began in 1939, but it wasn't until the 1985 expansion to 64 teams, the first national broadcasts of early-round games on a fledgling ESPN and the sense that every game, every shot mattered, that it transformed into what now is nothing less than a national institution.

It's so big that the word “bracketology” — the art of analyzing the bracket — has become, if not officially accepted by Merriam-Webster, at least part of our lexicon. There are even “bracketologists,” though still no “Ph.D Bay-bee!” university degrees.

“It's kind of like the Super Bowl on steroids, three weeks instead of one day,” said Jerry Palm, CBS Sports' resident bracketologist. “The Super Bowl is such a big event, with a popular sport, even people who don't care about the game just watch the ads. And we're a nation that doesn't need much of an excuse to party. But the thing with college hoops is that everyone's got a school. And even if your school isn't in it, everyone can fill out a bracket.”

More do so every year. Buddies fill out brackets among themselves, offices have pools, online services offer prizes up to $1 million for winners, and fans who wouldn't know Christian Laettner from Kemba Walker shamelessly ask colleagues to help with their choices. President Obama's staff presented his bracket on Thursday even as he toured a missile defense system in Israel. The site Gambling Business projects that 40 million brackets will be filled out this year.

Profits and losses

Roughly two-thirds of participants limit their spending to $10 or less, but that shouldn't suggest there isn't serious money — and serious gambling — involved. The website estimates that $12 billion will be bet on brackets, including the 96 percent of wagers placed illegally according to the American Gambling Association.

The Super Bowl remains America's biggest betting day ($6 billion for the most recent one in February), but the NCAA Tournament roughly doubles that over its full length. It's almost entirely responsible for March being the biggest betting month of the year.

Of the above-table revenue, nothing stands out like the TV money. In 2010, CBS and the NCAA signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract to broadcast the tournament, a $770 million annual payout that accounts for about 90 percent of all the NCAA's revenues. (College football monies are handled by the schools.) It's paying off for CBS, too: According to AdWeek, TV ad revenues are expected to top $1 billion this year, more than the NFL's entire recent playoffs that garnered $976 million.

Not all of the economic impact is positive, of course: An NCAA survey done last year estimated that more than 3 million workers will watch at least an hour over the tournament's first two days and that employers will lose roughly $134 million in productivity.

This year could be the worst in terms of extra bathroom breaks and the like. CBS has issued a free app for iPhone and Android users in which anyone with a cable TV subscription can watch any game for free on their mobile devices.

Home-court advantage

“It's huge for TV, and it's only going to get bigger,” said Maury Brown, a sports business specialist and author. “And, really, it's not like any other event, including the pro sports. People love the idea that kids are playing for the love of the game. They love the Cinderella aspect. They love that the tournament lends itself to great stories even in the early going. That's made-for-TV stuff, and that's where all the money comes from.”

That Cinderella factor is growing each year, participants say. Parity is at an all-time high, largely because of college players leaving school early for the NBA. Games are less predictable, more fun.

Pitt, for example, enters as a No. 8 seed. But even if it beats No. 9 Wichita State on Thursday, then were to topple No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday, few would be surprised. The Panthers' regular season included thorough beatings of higher-ranked Georgetown and Syracuse.

“That's the way everything's changed with this sport,” said Brandin Knight, a Pitt assistant coach and former star point guard. “Part of the fun I think a lot of people have with our game, and part of why it's become what it is … every game they watch could bring an upset.”

That's not the only feel-good or even the primary feel-good aspect to the tournament.

The streets of this mile-high, mountain-circled city are lined with banners welcoming the eight teams in the West Region, with volunteers everywhere, opening doors and smiling as many doubtless did during the 2002 Winter Olympics. It's a hometown environment not available with any other major sports championship, largely because it's spread across so many towns.

This tournament, by the time it reaches the Final Four in Atlanta, will have played out in 13 cities across the United States.

It will return to Pittsburgh, too, in 2015 at Consol Energy Center with Duquesne University playing host.

“Our team is fortunate to be a little closer than most,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, the former Pitt and Blackhawk High School star. “But this is part of the beauty of it, having the event all over the country and in a beautiful place like Salt Lake City. It's something I talk about with my team all the time, about how much the tournament means, not just to all of us in the game but also the fans everywhere who watch it, who appreciate it.”

Well, not everywhere.

Pitt's Steven Adams, the 7-foot center from New Zealand, laughed when asked if anyone was filling out brackets back in Auckland.

“Brackets? For this?” Adams said. “No, it's rugby season, man.”

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at orvia Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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