FAIRFIELD — When Jason Youngblood fills out his March Madness basketball tournament bracket, he’ll pick Louisville to win it all.
He almost always does.
“Anytime they’re in the top 20, I pick them,” said Youngblood, a 43-year-old Vacaville resident. “There have been years when I’ve tried to strategize and not gone with my heart. But if they’re near the top 20, I follow my heart.”
The Cardinals are a highly ranked team this year, so that makes it easy for Youngblood. Now he just needs to figure out all the other first-round games – and the rest of the tournament.
Youngblood isn’t alone: For millions of fans – casual and otherwise – real March Madness starts Monday.
The NCAA Division I basketball tournament begins Tuesday with four “play-in” games. But Monday is more important: It’s the start of the bracket season, where people pitch in a few dollars and pick winners for all 67 games over the next three weeks.
If you win? Bragging rights in the office or with your friends. If you lose? Join the crowd. Nearly everyone loses.
“I think I might have won in the 1990s, but I haven’t won anything that I remember,” Youngblood said.
Here’s a disclaimer: Office pools are technically illegal – in the same way as fishing without a license or walking a dog off a leash – you can get a ticket.
“It’s covered by the California Penal Code – office pools that are not valued at $2,500 or more are (still) illegal,” said John Daugherty, the chief deputy district attorney for Solano County. “It’s an infraction and you could be cited. The maximum penalty is $250.”
Daugherty said that pools with a total of more than $2,500 could be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or felony.
But does law enforcement go after the $100 office bracket?
“I’ve been here almost 28 years and I don’t remember ever seeing one (prosecuted),” Daugherty said. “I’ve seen other gambling cases, but nothing with respect to office pools.”
That’s good news to Youngblood and others like him. He has filled out brackets for more than two decades – starting when he was a student at Fairfield High School.
“But I remember far more with my co-workers than my classmates at school,” he said.
He’s been self-employed for the past 15 or so years, so the office pool went by the wayside while the bracket remained.
“I had some church buddies who got me in an online pool for no money, just pride,” he said. “And last year, I got involved with a friend who had one with his friends. It was the first time I had a little money on the line in a few years and I definitely did more research and read more about them.”
As more and more bracket contests go online, the traditional office pool – with people turning in pages with handwritten winners on them – have decreased. But even the preponderance of online brackets doesn’t answer the question of whether they’re good or bad for the office.
Challenger Gray & Christmas, an executive outplacement firm, releases its annual report this week that estimates the cost to American businesses of employees watching March Madness games at work – much of which is attributed to participation in office pools. This year’s report estimates that companies stand to lose $1.2 billion for each unproductive work hour during the first week of the tournament.
A survey by Microsoft last year – cited by Challenger Gray & Christmas – showed that 86 percent of respondents said they would spend at least part of their workday updating brackets, checking scores and following games during the tournament.
Bad for the office? Not according to Challenger Gray & Christmas, which said companies should embrace pools, not crack down on them.
“At the end of the day, it is unlikely that a few days of March Madness distraction will impact the company’s bottom line,” a press release from the firm said. “Taking a hard line on office pools and online streaming, on the other hand, could have a dramatic impact on the bottom line if it leads to increased turnover or causes employees to become disengaged.”
The group suggests offering a companywide office pool and other incentives during the first two days of the tournament – Thursday and Friday.
In an article in the Kansas City Star newspaper, the director of survey programs for the Society for Human Resource Management said, “the trend is definitely looking at these (office pools) in a positive way. They do bring employees together and impact relationships with each other. They serve as a sort of bonding, like talking about the TV shows they’re watching.”
For Youngblood, the coming three weeks will be about following his bracket and following his beloved Louisville Cardinals.
“There’s something about college basketball that feels like my roots,” he said. “I see so few games and don’t have cable (TV), so I don’t follow them like I should. But I definitely pay attention.”
Like much of America, he will really pay attention during the next few weeks. Because if the right teams win, he wins, too.
Reach Brad Stanhope at 427-6958 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bradstanhope.
March Madness bracket numbers