The NCAA Final Four is on Saturday. Outside of the Super Bowl, the Final Four is arguably the biggest sporting event of the calendar year. And unlike the Super Bowl, the Final Four won’t be mostly about the commercials or the halftime show.
The Final Four, and the NCAA Tournament that precedes it, is about young men with their hearts on their sleeves, playing for the name on the front of the jersey (not on the back), doing sports the right way, personifying what it means to be a student athlete, etc. etc.
The NCAA Tournament is about watching future millionaires enjoy playing the game that someday is going to make them famous the world around.
The NCAA Tournament is also kind of about the insidious nature of big-time college sports. Things like the fact that Aaron Harrison’s game-winning three-pointer in the Elite Eight against Michigan netted something like half a million dollars in bonuses for his head coach and Athletic Director, not a dime of which will go into his pocket.
Or something like (speaking of the University of Kentucky where Aaron Harrison is a freshman), the fact that UK head coach John Calipari has basically won nothing since almost all of his major victories, including NCAA titles, have been vacated because of cheating, and he remains one of the most celebrated college coaches ever.
Or how about the fact that many of the biggest names in college basketball, guys like Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker whose names have been used to sell the NCAA this season (and in reality last season) and will be used next season to sell the NBA, are 18 year-old freshmen, who are in and out of college in about six months, and have changed the way college basketball is marketed, will be played forever going forward, and really throw off the bell curve for the 90% of college basketball players who will never even reach, let alone star, at the next level.
(This last one is less on the insidious side and a little more on the frustrating side, considering it’s not Wiggins’s or Parker’s fault that they’re super good and have a tendency to make Division I hoopers look a little like JV chuckers. Also, there’s a bit of poetic justice considering neither Kansas [Wiggins] nor Duke [Parker] made it as far as the Sweet Sixteen in this season’s NCAA Tournament.)
The NCAA Tournament and the Final Four are all those things and more. But there’s something else that needs to be talked about in the topic of March Madness, and it has nothing to do with any of those topics above.
Each of them deserves it’s own multi-thousand word essay. But I want to talk about Warren Buffett.
For this most recent NCAA Tournament, Mr. Buffett made himself a wager. He bet that nobody would be able to fill out a perfect NCAA Tournament Bracket. For those who don’t know–the same people I imagine who don’t know how to fasten an airplane seatbelt–part of the popularity of the NCAA Tournament is filling out a bracket and betting your friends, or coworkers, or total strangers that your bracket will be more accurate than theirs.
Every major sports-media company has taken advantage of this phenomenon. Just like fantasy baseball was once called rotisserie baseball and was for diehards only and took a lot of meticulous effort to make it work properly, nowadays any guy or gal with an internet connection can fill out literally dozens of NCAA brackets.
The affliction of the internet sports era is that everybody believes they can be a sportswriter, or that their sports opinions are just as good (or even better) of those one-percenters who actually get paid (rather handsomely) to pontificate about America’s various pastimes. See: Bleacher Report.
The catch-22 of the internet sports era is that crowd sourcing sports opinions dilutes the eventual product and that sometimes it’s hard to tell who are the pros and who aren’t when it comes to sports-pontification. See: Bleacher Report’s multi-million dollar deal with Turner.
Enter Warren Buffett. What hasn’t been said about Buffett’s bet that for A BILLION dollars nobody ON EARTH could fill out a perfect bracket was that this bet was an ultimate “put your money were your mouth is” bet. And not just for dudes and dudettes who don’t get paid to think sports thoughts.
Everybody was eligible for Buffett’s Billion, and that meant one thing, everybody lost. Not only did everybody lose, by the end of the tournament’s second day (a tournament that lasts basically a month) there wasn’t a single perfect bracket left of the millions that were filled out at Yahoo, the site that hosted Buffett’s wager.
ESPN had a lot more entrants in their Tournament Challenge (but no billion-dollar payday) so there was a better chance they would get through the first few days of play with a few perfect brackets intact. But even the World-Wide Leader couldn’t crack one percent after sixteen first round games.
Certainly the possibility of completing a prefect bracket was highly unlikely from the beginning (odds in the trillions or at least the hundred billions). That’s why Buffett would put up a billion dollars; he knew there was basically no chance he was going to lose.
It was a sucker’s bet, essentially a troll move. It was such a good troll move, that not only did the announcement of the wager make waves and headlines, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog basically launched with a statistical breakdown of every team’s chances at making to the end of the Big Dance. And he made front page news again when the last faker at a tiny sliver of his fortune was vanquished before the second round of games had even started.
It was such a good troll move, in fact, that Warren Buffett trolled his own damn self.
How, you asked? Here’s how.
The Final Four is going to be watched by a whole lot of people. So many people that every newspaper in every town in the country will likely carry the story about which team eventually wins the NCAA Tournament on its front page.
Imagine, if you will, how much the tension would have heightened for the Final Four if A BILLION dollars were on the line? It would have been human drama like nobody would have ever seen.
Forget who wants to be a millionaire. After taxes, a million bucks can buy you a house and a car or two, give you a nice nest egg, and probably set you up on a pretty special vacation. But winning a million dollars doesn’t mean you get to quit your day job (at least not forever) and buy an NBA expansion team. A BILLION dollars, though, is a whole different ball game.
The absolute singularity moment when it comes to live television, the moment after which TV shows will have to cease to exist because it will be an absolute impossibility for the medium to advance any further, is a death (or maybe a birth) live and on the air. It’s probably the main theme of The Hunger Games; the thing that is actually at the root of that series that makes it so incredibly dark.
In the distant dystopian future, murder of children on live TV is so commonplace that it’s become a national event (kind of like the NCAA Tournament with a few more deaths and a bigger following). In the current, slightly dystopian present, the collective television viewing audience would lose its collective mind if a person were murdered on live TV.
We can only hope murder TV comes online before television as we know it is totally converted to a la carte offerings, tailor-made for each individual viewer based on a complex (and proprietary) algorithm, and beamed directly into the cerebral cortex.
We can also hope that next season, when Warren Buffett inevitably wagers another of his billion dollar bills on the possibility of a perfect ballot, he does a little more advertising. Of course the natural inclination would be to change the game so that the odds were better, do something like re-launch the contest after every round of the tournament, giving entrants a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance at a perfect bracket.
If Buffett changed the parameters of his wager, he would have to change the amount of his payout. If he changed the amount of the payout, the whole activity goes right down the drain.
So advertising is the only way to go. Buffett should spend the next 365 traveling the world, putting out the word on next season’s NCAA Bracket Challenge. If every person on earth filled out a bracket, just one because that’s all you get when trying to win Buffett’s Billions, the odds that someone would accidentally construct a bracket that was 100% perfect, though still astronomical, would be significantly improved.
Maybe Buffett loses his billions on the bracket, but he’d recoup his losses in international television advertising revenue.
And imagine this scenario: Warren Buffett travels to middle of Africa with a team of technology experts (that’s a thing right?) and sets up a group of Maasai tribes-people with everything they need to complete an NCAA Tournament bracket (basically, an internet connection, an email address, a computer, and anywhere between two and 11 minutes), and one of those tribes-people (hopefully one with a back story filled with family tragedies that have been overcome) gets to the Final Four with a perfect bracket still going and a chance at a billion dollars on the line.
Imaging watching that person watch two college basketball teams go at it knowing that if the right team wins they’re the world’s newest billionaire. Even better, imagine watching that person watch as the team they need to win fails to win, thus, after making it through hours and hours of college basketball games without incorrectly picking a game, losing a billion dollars when it was actually within reach.
Now that would be outstanding television, assuming Buffett and Yahoo had the foresight to buy some plane tickets and books some TV studio space.
So while you’re watching the Final Four this coming weekend, think about it. We were all suckers. Warren Buffett dangled a billion dollars in front of our faces and we were silly enough to think that we could win it.
But think about this too. The biggest sucker of them all was Warren Buffett himself. By being right, that a lot of people will think they have the contest nailed and can turn their NCAA tournament picking skills into the kind of money that turned Biff Tannen from a bumbling auto mechanic to just this side of the devil himself and that all those people would be very very wrong, he deprived us all of the greatest television experience of all time, and he deprived himself of the kind publicity that no amount of money can buy.
But hey, just as three out of the four college basketball teams will be saying come Tuesday morning, and just as all the would-be expert NCAA handicappers were saying after the second day of this year’s tournament, there’s always next year.