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Everybody Check Your NCAA Brackets

March 23, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) _ OK, everyone. Back in the pool.

The second weekend of March Madness begins tonight, with a Sweet Sixteen colleges left from the original 64 squads in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

No need to root for the home team. Merely check who’s left on your bracket sheet and cheer accordingly. The drama of the championship _ and the possibility of winning that office pool _ have put the games on center stage across the country.

``The games are all so exciting,″ says Howard Arkin, whose Interactivepools.com has set up 10,000 pools via the Internet in the last two weeks. ``I know people who don’t know anything about basketball, and all of a sudden they’re mavens.″

It’s a group that includes high school students and college professors, Wall Street executives and weathermen _ all suddenly cheering for unlikely favorites like St. Bonaventure or Pepperdine.

At the Yale School of Management, Prof. Edward Kaplan used his computer to conjure up picks in several pools. Kaplan’s thing is proving his analytical system of determining winners through specific data is superior to those who depend on basketball smarts.

So far, his results have been mixed _ but he’ll be watching intently this weekend.

``The money means nothing to me,″ says Kaplan, who invested just $10 in one campus pool. ``One person wins the pool, but everybody else loses. If I beat most of them, that’s the real measure.″

OK, so maybe Kaplan is in the minority. Arkin set up one pool for a multinational company that brought in several thousand entrants from around the world.

``I would imagine,″ Arkin says, ``that quite a chunk of change is involved in some of these pools.″

The tournament is as much for mercenaries as alumni. In Las Vegas, the amount legally wagered on the tournament is an estimated $60 million _ almost $1 million for each of its 63 games.

The numbers for illegal gambling dwarf that total. Add up the $10 office pools, the $50 bets and the other assorted gambling from coast to coast and the FBI estimates $2.5 billion in illegal wagers.

In the most ballyhooed pool, there will be no winner. Sandbox.com ran a pool offering $10 million to anybody who successfully picked all 63 games. There were 610,705 entrants. By the end of the first round, all were eliminated.

And they were watching: The first weekend of the tournament posted the highest ratings since 1994. The figures for the first four days were up 6 percent from last year, when CBS paid $6 billion for an 11-year contract that kicks in three years from now.

The interest is so high that Nike’s March Madness advertising campaign is simply titled ``Bracketville, USA.″ Sports Illustrated put a set of empty brackets on its cover behind a shot of Iowa State star Marcus Fizer. (If you slipped Iowa State into your brackets, congratulations _ they play UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen.)

Still, the pools (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) are not really gambling, but good fun. All-sports radio host Steve Somers of WFAN in New York refers to the ``little milk and cookies pool″ at his office.

Some business experts believe such pools actually foster camaraderie. Suddenly, everybody has a shared interest for three weeks.

``The betting pool ... gives co-workers an excuse to see each other face to face in a world where technology has put efficiency, but distance, in our work relationships,″ says business consultant Bob Nelson.

Uh, right. And go Gonzaga.

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