Who Wants to be a Billionaire? Buffett-backed Contest is Great Internet Stress Test

By Peter Bernstein January 24, 2014

I realize that many of our readers are not from the United States and hence the term “March Madness” may not resonate as our reference to the annual NCCA college basketball tournament that ultimately leads to the crowning of a national champion.  And, while basketball is a wonderful sport, in many ways people in this country seem much more interested in winning a little extra pin money from correctly besting others with their prognostication skills than in watching the contests themselves. 

In fact, talk about social networking. The tourney engulfs virtually every office and social group, along with just plain folks, in the fine art of “Bracketology”—contributing predictions on the outcomes of the games with whomever gets the most correct taking home the spoils.  This goes beyond being big. The term “Insanity” is a word you will see more often than not in relation to all of the betting on the event. It involves placing predictions either with online sponsors of contests, which include almost every media outlet you can imagine, to legal betting parlors to the omni-present office pools.

Just for context, dominant sports network ESPN says that over the last 16 years of its sponsorship of a tournament challenge, it has received roughly 30 million submissions. It also notes that in that entire time not a single person has ever run the table and predicted every game correctly. 

This latter point relates to the headline.  Billionaire investor Warren Buffet has teamed with fellow billionaire Dan Gilbert and Detroit, Mich.-based Quicken Loans to sponsor a contest called the, “Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge.”  As every item about this has pointed out, if you can correctly pick the winner of every single game in this year’s draw, you will win $1 Billion and “that is billion with a ‘B’.       

Think this is a piece of cake?  Think again. The odds of achieving perfection are 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 (9 quintillion) to one.  But hey, “you gotta be in it to win it!”

The contest will start on Mach 3.

Source: Quicken Loans

As you can see from the graphic you will be able to enter March, 3 with predictions being accepted until March 19, 2014. There will be a limit of one entry per household to avoid people entering early and often. It will also avoid over-running the IT infrastructure to be put in place for this event. Hopefully they are not looking to use the folks who brought us Healthcare.gov.

For the official rules, click here.  Notice that not only will there be a grand prize of $1 Billion for the perfect bracket (which is payable over 40 years in annual payments of $25 Million or in a one-time lump sum of $500 Million - which ain’t small potatoes), but there will also be $1000,000 payouts to the top twenty scoring brackets.

A tip of the hat needs to be given to Quicken Loans president Jay Farner who stated that, "We've seen a lot of contests offering a million dollars for putting together a good bracket, which got us thinking, what is the perfect bracket worth?...We decided a billion dollars seems right for such an impressive feat." I for one think he and his billionaire collaborators got that right. This is an amazing public relations gimmick that without even going live, has already worked. 

What will be interesting to follow as this goes forward is not just the number of entries, which will in no way impede people from entering as many pools/contests as they please, but is sure to create a tidal wave of activity on social networks above and beyond even the usual buzz around the tournament.  Plus, while the NCAA publically frowns on betting on its student athlete events, it has to be more than pleased with the extra incentive people will have to tune in during the tournament. Also in the weeks running up to the event, so people can make “informed” predictions. And, while gambling on college basketball has had its scandals, the nice thing about doing the brackets is that because of the dispersion of predictions and the volume, the possibility of fixing a game or games to better the odds actually has odds that rival that of having a perfect scorecard.

This really does give new meaning to the term, “There is a lot riding on the outcome!”

When March Madness rolls around, even people who have zero interest in basketball, and could not tell you the name of a single school mascot (what is the deal with prestigious Georgetown being called the “Hoyas” anyway?) do get highly, emotionally involved.  In fact, you don’t want to be around when somebody who picked winners based on where schools are located since they knew nothing about team talent beats all of the office aficionados to claim what can big a substantial pot of money.  It can get pretty ugly out there.

I am ready and am scouting teams. I want to be a billionaire, and millions like me are going to want to be one too. That is an experience we all wish to enjoy despite the long odds. It can only be hoped given the time between the announcement of the contest and when it goes live, that the infrastructure needed to make this a fun experience does not have long odds against IT. My money, given who is behind this, is that the network will be good to go. 

Good luck everyone.     

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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