Run Your Own NCAA Tournament Pool

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Run Your Own NCAA Tournament Pool

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 05: A detail of giant NCAA logo is seen outside of the stadium on the practice day prior to the NCAA Men's Final Four at the Georgia Dome on April 5, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

Not long ago, running the office March Madness pool meant some poor schlub would be stuck, every night of the tournament, leafing through stacks of photocopies to see who picked Davidson and who picked Georgetown in the round of 32.

No more.

This is the digital age. If you can use the internet to visit a web page or type an e-mail -- and if you're reading this you're already 50 percent there -- you can run a NCAA Tournament pool in your office or for friends and family.

But be careful. As with any situation in which money changes hands, being "the guy in charge" has a great deal of potential to create ​agita... and watching your Final Four pick get knocked out in the Sweet Sixteen is more than enough stress.

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Who's Playing?

Man at Computer
The NCAA Tournament Pool is a traditional office time-waster. stock.xchng

The Internet has made running a March Madness pool very easy. The hardest part is finding your players.

In the Office

The workplace is one of the most popular places to run an NCAA Tournament pool. But remember -- betting money on the NCAA Tournament isn't -- strictly speaking -- legal in most places, and your HR department may forbid such things.

Another concern -- there may be a fairly-well established NCAA pool in your workplace already. You don't want to step on the toes of the office bookie. (I know this from experience... my wife has been the "Paulie Walnuts" of her office for years.)

Friends and Family

Because most March Madness pools are Internet-based these days (more on that in a second), it's easy to get a big group of friends and family together for a pool via e-mail. This does make collecting money a bit tricker... more on that in a moment.

On the Web

Most of the big sports sites will allow you to join some sort of "open" group and compete for cash or prizes.

Once you've got your players, the next step is to decide where you'll host the game.

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Where Are We Playing?

Paper Brackets are OUT.
Paper Brackets are OUT. Photo Illustration © Charlie Zegers

Don't even think about handing out photocopies of the brackets... save some trees -- and a whole lot of trouble -- by running your tournament online.

Every one of the big Internet fantasy game portals will have a NCAA Tournament bracket game. For the most part, they work the same way:

  1. Sign up for the game.
  2. Create your own league. Give it a name and a password.
  3. Use an invitation system built into the game to invite the other players to sign up... or send the players instructions via regular e-mail.
  4. Once the tournament begins, sit back, relax and watch the standings for your league online.

March Madness Bracket Hosts

Which is best? Hard to say. They all offer the same basic features -- the best way to make the decision might be "which of these sites do your players use already?" In other words -- if everyone's comfortable with ESPN.com, go with "the worldwide leader." 

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Setting the Price and Payout

Money Matters
The entry fee for your pool will mostly depend on who's playing. stock.xchng

Given the dubious legality of gambling on the NCAA Tournament, we're sure you readers are playing March Madness pools for sheer entertainment value. But in case you're interested in a discussion of NCAA pools and cash wagers -- as a sociological experiment or similar -- read on.

How Much Does It Cost?

As you invite people to participate in your pool, one of the first questions you'll be asked is, "how much?" This is a tricky question, but here are some general guidelines:

  1. Be Reasonable. You don't want to ask people to bet their rent money...
  2. Don't be too cheap. You want there to be a nice payoff for the winner.
  3. Most importantly -- set a price that's appropriate for your group. If your pool is made up of struggling college students, that's one thing. If it's a bunch of stockbrokers, that's another. (This year, you'll get more money from the college students.)

    The Payout

    You'll also need to decide on a payout... how will the pool be divided? Is it winner-takes-all? A 75-25 split between first and second place? The number of permutations is endless.

    Make sure the payout is set -- and clear to everyone -- before you start collecting money.

    Ties

    Every online NCAA Tournament game will have some sort of tie-breaker system -- usually something like "final score of the championship game" -- so ties are very rare. But just to be on the safe side, decide in advance what you'll do in the event of a tie. For example: if your pool has a 75-25 split of the winnings between first and second, and two players tie for first, split the winnings 50-50 with no payout for second place. If two players tie for second, the winner still gets 75%, and the two second-place teams split what's left.

    Be clear, be logical, and make sure to inform everyone ahead of time, so there are no misunderstandings.

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Collect the Money

Suitcase Full of $100s
This is what they payout looked like the last time I won... but your mileage may vary. stock.xchng

Now the hard part -- collecting the money. This will be the most difficult part of running a pool.

There's only one way to do it: set a deadline, and keep to it. Noon Eastern on the first day of the tournament is a good cut-off -- tell anyone that attempts to submit money after that, "thanks but no thanks." This is a purely practical matter... if you let people wait to pay until after the tournament starts, you'll lose a lot of entries. People are far less motivated to kick in their ante after losing four Sweet Sixteen teams in the first round.

If someone wants to play but can't get you the money on time, have someone else kick in their entry fee -- or do it yourself. But the pot has to be right before the tournament starts.

Once games begin, send a notification to all the players if there are any teams in the league standings that haven't paid up, letting everyone know that "Team X" can't win the pool because the owner hasn't paid.

Online Payment Methods

The Internet makes running pools easier but complicates the money collection. In an office, you can walk from cube to cube with the collection envelope. When your league is full of college buddies from North Carolina, a guy in the Army stationed in Kabul, and your mother-in-law in New Haven, walking around with an envelope becomes... impractical.

You may need to make allowances in these cases. Ask them to send checks or cash, or offer to kick in for them.

You could also use an online payment service like PayPal -- but bear in mind, PayPal will deduct money from the transfer, depending on what sort of account you have and whether or not the payer uses a credit card or a bank account to fund the transaction.

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Taking a Cut

Prison Wall
Insert your favorite quote from Shawshank, He Got Game or Office Space here. stock.xchng

At this point, you may be thinking, "I deserve a little compensation for all this trouble. Like, say, five percent off the top."

You don't.

As we've mentioned before, in most places, running an NCAA Tournament pool isn't strictly legal -- but most jurisdictions won't waste resources chasing people for running an office pool.

Once you start taking a cut, your pool makes the leap from "harmless diversion" to "bookmaking racket." Don't risk it.

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Enjoy the Games

The Jayhawks raise their championship trophy
Perhaps your pool should offer a championship t-shirt?. Getty Images / Jed Jacobsohn
The website hosting your pool will enforce the deadline to submit picks. You may wind up with a player or two that paid to participate but didn't get his or her picks in on time... refunding an entry seems appropriate in that situation, but it's your call.

And that's really all there is to it.

Once the games begin, the league standings will be tracked by the website. You might want to send out an e-mail to the group after the first weekend and let everyone know who's winning.

Or, just sit back, relax, and root for your picks.

Good luck.