March Madness: The $1 Billion Advertisement Disguised as a Contest

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Graphic from Quicken Loans' Facebook page.

Graphic from Quicken Loans' Facebook page.

Robert Rivard Headshot 250x250 (1)A little more than one month from now, office productivity will decline suddenly as water cooler talk turns to March Madness and the advent of the 2014 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. Desktop computer screens will display brackets as employees labor over their best guesses, while office pools will quickly be filled with bettors hoping for a payday.

San Antonians by the thousands likely will enter the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge that same way people line up in this city whenever PowerBall or MegaMillions jackpots climb into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The lottery, of course, is a tax on the working poor.

The Quicken Loans offer of $1 billion to anyone who can correctly predict the winner and loser of every single NCAA tournament game is free to enter, and with even worse odds than the lotteries, probably a good reminder to all of us to keep our day jobs and not waste our pocket cash.

That said, I will enter and hope all of you do, too, in a bid to bring the grand prize home to San Antonio. This city would benefit enormously from a new member of the local billionaire’s club. A nice thought, but also a delusional one.

How bad are the odds? I’m not sure how to put it in words, actually.

The odds are 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 (9.2+ quintillion) that one of the 10 million people who enter will win, according to the Quicken Loans Facebook page created for the contest.

That’s why the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, chairman and founder of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, agreed to underwrite an insurance policy for Quicken Loans to cover the bet in the highly unlikely event there is a winner and the company has to pay off.

The odds as stated by Quicken Loans are based on a dartboard selection of winners and losers in the 2014 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, that is, somebody entering the contest who doesn’t know the difference between Arizona and Texas, two teams that as of this week would make the tournament but have very different prospects.

A Duke professor cited in a Los Angeles Times article said the odds would be more like one in a billion for a serious, basketball-wise gambler. One in a billion that a single person can predict the outcome of all 67 tournament games.

Buffett is also one of the world’s greatest philanthropists, but don’t think he is interested in losing this bet and paying you or me $1 billion. In this instance, Buffett is making a smart bet of his own: charging Quicken Loans an undisclosed sum, undoubtedly many millions of dollars, to underwrite the company’s risk.

As the Times article points out, Buffett has said he will attend the Championship Final in the company of any individual who makes it that far, but even then, he is unlikely to worry much about losing. Buffet can simply turn to his guest before tip-off and ask if they’d like to cash out early for, say, a $10 million check that Buffett just happens to have in the pocket of his wrinkled sport coat. Wouldn’t you take a $10 million check written by Buffett rather than risk the 50-50 odds that your chosen team will lose the championship game? Some of us might bravely claim we’d stick it out, but would we? How about $20 million? It’s Buffett’s bet and he would call your bluff.

Robert Rivard and Warren Buffett at Biga on the Banks in December 2006. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

Robert Rivard and Warren Buffett at Biga on the Banks in December 2006. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

Quicken Loans will get far more publicity than it could have purchased with a Super Bowl ad, so when the Final Four concludes April 7, in all likelihood there will be two winners: Quicken Loans and Buffett. Haha, this worked out so well, they will tell each other, let’s do it again next year.

Tens of millions of people participate in March Madness each year by entering bracket contests and office pools to pick the NCAA Final Four winner. The odds of making the right pick out of 68 teams that start the single-elimination tourney are high. The odds of picking all the games correctly are out of this world.

The participating teams won’t be known until early March. Conference winners will account for 36 teams with the other 32 schools selected and seeded according to their records, conferences, and schedules. After eight lower-ranking teams play four games, the remaining 64 teams will be divided into four brackets of 16 teams each.

The contest rules have not been released, so I’m unclear whether entries must be right about all 68 teams or only the 64 bracketed teams. I’m also uncertain how Quicken Loans will select the Top 20 entries, the ones who came close to getting it right, each of whom will earn $100,000. Presumably, each of those 20 individuals (or pools) will have picked the correct Final Four teams but will have miscalled one or more games along the way. How then will ties be broken? Will it be based on the person who picked the most overall game winners and the Finals winner?

It’s called March Madness for a reason, even if the Final Four games will be played on April 5 and 7, this year at the AT&T Stadium in Dallas this year. Powerhouse schools occasionally fall to small-school over-achievers. It isn’t an NCAA championship without at least one dark horse school making a heart-breaking run at the trophy. Upsets are what make the bracket ritual so much much fun and so frustrating.

Unlike state-run lotteries, Quicken Loans will reduce its risk by limiting entries (one per household) to the first 10 million people to send in their brackets. You can click on the link to the company’s Facebook page to read more details, but basically the contest rules and terms won’t be fully released until March 3. The entry period is set to last until March 19, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the company’s servers crash in the first hours on March 3, with the 10 million limit being hit in a few days.

How Quicken Loans will manage this mayhem is hard to predict, but with 162,000 Likes on a recently-launched Facebook page, it already can declare the contest a success, given that it was meant all along as a marketing ploy, a pseudo-contest of sorts designed to produce no winner. Even the $1 billion prize is just a mirage. Contestants who pick the cash option will vie for a $500 million payday, half the advertised winning sum, or they can select to receive $25 million each year for 40 years. Warren Buffett didn’t become the fourth richest man in the world, according to Forbes, by making bad bets. The rest of us will just have hope that this one time he is wrong.

 

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

 

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