The NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament is well known for creating madness among college sports fans. Each year millions tune in to watch the games, with many fans participating in bracket challenges. Bracket challenges have become incredibly popular, with everyone from employers to major sports networks creating their own to see who can pick the tournament champion.
In 2014 Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, decided to get in on the action by announcing his own bracket challenge. The payout: correctly guess the winner of each of the tournament’s 63 games and win $1 million every year for life. This year he's sweetened the offer, doubling the prize if a team from his home state of Nebraska wins the tournament. In the past years, news of the contest dominated media outlets for weeks and thousands of bracket entries poured in, but Buffett had almost nothing to fear because he had statistics on his side.
How likely is it that someone could pick a perfect bracket? Not very. During the 2013 tournament, no one who created a bracket on either Yahoo! or CBS picked more than 50 games correctly, and many seemingly perfect brackets turn sour after the second day of the tournament.
The tournament may involve more teams, but brackets only contain 64 teams due to play-in games. To get a perfect bracket a participant would have to pick 63 games correctly (every team that doesn’t win the championship loses one game). Each game has two possible incomes: either Team A wins and Team B loses, or Team B wins and Team A loses. To calculate the total number of ways to fill out a bracket take the total number of possible outcomes for each game (2) and multiply it out 63 times: 2 x 2 x 2….x 2, or 2^63. The odds come in at one in over nine quintillion - odds that don’t seem very promising.
Basketball games are harder to predict than simply flipping a coin, though. Teams in the tournament are assigned a seed, with seeds ranging from 1 to 16. The best teams are given the 1 seed, and the worst teams a 16 seed. The opening games pit seeds against their opposite: a 1 seed plays a 16, a 2 seed plays a 15, etc. History has shown that top seeds don’t lose to bottom seeds often, meaning that the odds of picking one game correctly are actually different than 50/50. This makes calculating the odds of a seeded tournament nearly impossible to figure out, with estimates ranging from 1-in-5 billion to 1-in-128 billion.
Are you filling out a March Madness bracket this year? Better check out Betting On March Madness? Watch Out For The Tax Man.