- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2000

The prize this year for picking every game in the NCAA tournament correctly: an astounding $10 million. The odds of getting that prize: at best, one in 5.7 billion, or less than hitting a pick-6 state lottery twice in a row.

Internet bracket contests, which became a mainstream hit last year with top prizes of $1 million, are back with a vengeance. Fueled by record traffic to Web sites like Sandbox.com, CNN/SI.com, and ESPN.com during last year's contests, each of those sites and several others have returned with the eight-figure awards, as well as free cars, big-screen TVs, home gyms and trips to next year's Final Four.

The NCAA, however, is not happy. Already trying to stamp out a rash of gambling on college sports, both on and off campus, the organization is not pleased with how the Web sites have greatly popularized a new version of the fabled and still illegal office pool. The fact that the sites do not charge fees or use NCAA trademarks such as "Final Four" and "March Madness" has done little to quell the NCAA's anger.

"We're adamant about doing anything we can to get these things as far away as possible from any appearance of gambling," said Wally Renfro, NCAA spokesman. "We don't like this one bit. It's infuriating. But unless they use the NCAA logo or our marks, all we can do is throw our hands up."

For the Web sites, however, the bracket contests represent the year's most fertile marketing opportunity even more so than with the Super Bowl or World Series. That's because much of the first and second rounds of the tournament, which provide some of the most gripping action, take place during the day, when most people are at work. The best way for many office workers to follow the action is through their computers.

"This event, in particular, really translates to stickiness viewers sticking around on the site for a long time," said David Payne, senior vice president and general manager of CNN/SI.com. "In the first round alone, there are 32 games to sort through, instead of just one for the Super Bowl."

Reston-based Sandbox.com, formerly Wall Street Sports, is covering its $10 million prize with insurance (like all the other sites). The company, which runs a large number of fantasy sports games, tried to get its insurers to back a $1 billion prize so it could theme its contest as "Who Wants to Be the Next Web Billionaire?"

But even at the astronomic odds of picking all the games correctly the first-place winners in each of the contests picked between 45 and 50 games right Sandbox.com couldn't find a taker.

"We really wanted to do that, but we still feel very good about our contest," said Larry Cotter, Sandbox.com chairman, who expects nearly a million entrants. "We have real stuff this year, very substantial prizes. This is very key for us. It helps bring in a lot of new members, the fans love playing and the advertisers love the exposure. Everybody wins."

A University of Southern California mathematics professor estimated a college basketball fan had a 1-in-5.7 billion chance of completing a perfect bracket. The odds soar into the quintillions for people who don't follow the sport.

Despite the NCAA's lack of power to stop the on-line bracket contests, it remains on the warpath against real gambling. A bill is now being debated in Congress that would ban betting on college sports through Nevada-based bookmakers, a $1 billion industry.

The idea, actually supported by the Nevada bookies, is designed to stop point-shaving scandals that continue to dog the NCAA. But a fear also exists that bettors would then flock to hard-to-control offshore bookies.

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