Everybody in the pool! It’s time for March Madness

Staff and wire reports

Every year about this time, Eddie Gontram’s architecture firm becomes one of the most popular in the country.
Hundreds of people he doesn’t know — and probably will never meet — check out his Web site, eagerly awaiting the latest news. And we’re not talking about blueprints for that new day spa.
“It’s March Madness,” Gontram said Monday.
Sure is, baby!
For the next three weeks, you’ll find sports nuts, devoted alums and people who don’t know a layup from a loose-ball foul breaking down their picks, obsessing over little-known schools like Monmouth and Pacific, and talking trash about that 8-9 matchup.
The World Series and NBA finals have their devotees, and clever ads and queso dip make the Super Bowl an all-inclusive party. When it comes to the NCAA tournament, though, there’s something in those brackets that converts even the least sportsminded folk into rabid fans.
“Part of it is it’s so easy to become involved,” said Scott Sepich, who has run a pool for about 70 friends for the last 10 years.
Indeed, brackets are everywhere these days. Printed in virtually every newspaper. Online. Passed out in neighborhoods, hospitals and church groups.
Even the most buttoned-down of offices get the fever. Instead of talk about mergers and acquisitions or tax season, watercooler chatter centers on the latest games, who’s winning the pool and what the prospects are for the next round.
And the true beauty? No expertise is needed. You could render Dick Vitale speechless with your knowledge of college hoops, sweat for days over RPIs and power conferences, and still lose to people who make their picks based on nicknames and uniform colors.
“My 4-year-old daughter beat me last year,” Gontram admitted. “She was within a whisker of winning the whole thing.”
Despite the fun and games, many NCAA tournament pools are illegal.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Matthew Chandler said pools are considered gambling if money or anything of value is up for grabs.
Peggy Hardwick, senior staff council at the New Mexico Gaming Board, agreed pools can be illegal, but said small-time players are seldom prosecuted.
“In terms of priorities,” she said. “I’m sure local law enforcement has more on their plate.”
Still, Portales Police Capt. Lonnie Berry warned, “If we got a report (about gambling), we would investigate it.”
Hardwick said police had a raid at the University of New Mexico for a pool during last year’s NCAA tournament, but the situation was extreme.
“A student was advertising a pool,” she said. “He ran an ad in the paper with his phone number. He was taking a cut of the prize money. In that case it was a fourth-degree felony. That is the only (tournament pool raid) I’m aware of.”
At baseball’s spring training, where the start of the season is less than a month away, the real agonizing isn’t over who will win the job at third base, but who will come out of the grueling Minneapolis regional.
Back in 1988, when the Dodgers were paid their annual visit by FBI agents for a talk on the evils of gambling, the feds were made to wait while the Los Angeles players finished up some important business. Seems they had to finish up their tournament picks.
Things have lightened up since then, but the brackets in almost every clubhouse are still serious business.
San Francisco Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti hasn’t decided if he’s going to enter a pool yet, but he still spent part of his morning Monday debating whether Cal, the seventh seed in the Atlanta Regional, can make a serious run.
The Seattle Mariners were hard at work on their picks soon after they arrived at camp Monday. The Mariners have two pools, one of the players’ own brackets and the other a random draw of the 65 teams. And across the country in Florida, St. Louis Cardinals infielder Scott Spiezio joked that someone had copied his bracket.
“I’ve got Duke winning it all,” Spiezio said. “I’ve got a couple of surprises in there, but I can’t say what they are. Then I’d I have to split my money.”
Ah, money.
An estimated $2.5 billion is reportedly bet on the NCAA tournament, with only $80 million bet legally in Nevada sports books. Bets placed with bookies account for some of the rest, and there are plenty of big-ticket pools.
But much comes from small pools, the $5, $10 and $20 wagered by average Joes who don’t otherwise gamble.
“It’s a crapshoot,” said Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer, who gets some inside info from his father-in-law, ESPN analyst Digger Phelps. “You’re dealing with kids, 17 to 21 years old. That’s a lot of pressure. Think of all the pressure — and the money that is bet on it, legally and illegally. It’s amazing.”
Many offices have stopped charging any fees to avoid legal issues. Gontram’s pool is free, with prizes donated by local businesses. The law firm of Hodes, Ulman, Pessin and Katz in Towson, Md., foots the bill for its office pool prizes.
The costs go beyond wagers and prizes, too. Arnie Wexler, a certified compulsive gambling counselor who runs a national hot line, worries that something that seems as harmless as an NCAA pool could trigger gambling problems.
“For most people, it’s no danger,” Wexler said. “But for those that have the personality or the gene, they could be off and running. This could be the start.”
And the Chicago-based job-search firm of Challenger, Gray and Christmas estimates the three weeks of the tournament could cost employers as much as $3.8 billion in lost productivity.
That doesn’t mean pools are all bad — Challenger, Gray and Christmas said they often are good bonding activities, bringing together employees who wouldn’t normally interact.
At Hodes, Ulman, Pessin and Katz, the Maryland law firm, about 80 percent of the 120 employees participate, said Kevin Bress, a partner who heads the elder law department and runs the pool.
No other company activity comes close to that.
“Not even the Christmas party,” Bress said.
AP staff and Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico sports writer Jesse Wolfersberger contributed to this report.