On Thursday, when the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament begins, millions of Americans who haven't watched more than 10 minutes of college basketball this year will be watching tournament games with great interest.
The reason? Brackets. People around the world will be participating in bracket pools, hoping their selections advance to the finals and that they will take home the pool prize. There's nothing like having a little skin in the game to develop a rooting interest.
Whether you fill in your brackets based on what you believe will happen, put blind faith in your alma mater/favorite team, or make your selections based on the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team's mascots and school colors, you are probably much more interested in the games than those who haven't filled out brackets.
But why limit ourselves to brackets? There are plenty of ways to spice up the NCAA basketball tournament with a wager or two other than a traditional bracket. Here are my top-10 betting alternatives to the traditional college basketball bracket.
Note: I know that Thursday's games technically mark the start of the "Second Round." I also know that there are four games this week before then that are "First Round" games. But because 60 of the teams in the tournament don't participate in
play-in games the First Round, it's really confusing to say a team's first game is a "Second Round" game. Therefore, Thursday and Friday's games will be "First Round" games, while Saturday and Sunday games will be called "Second Round" games in this article.
10. Last longer bet
This bet works best if you have a connection to a team in the tournament (say you work there or are an alumnus of the college or university) and you have acquaintances that have connections to other schools in the tournament. For example, Casino City Managing Editor Vin Narayanan is a Michigan State alum, and my wife went to the University of Michigan for graduate school. With a great rivalry already, this would make for a good last-longer bet. But with MSU a No. 1 seed and the Wolverines just a respectable No. 4 seed, I think I'll pass on this one (unless he wants to offer me say, 3/1 odds). Editor's note: Vin says it's bad juju to bet on your own team in a last longer bet.
9. Survivor pool
This is one of several betting opportunities that have been adopted from successful NFL pools. Each person picks one team that they think will win a game on each day in the tournament. If the team you picked wins, you get to try to pick a winner the next day, but you cannot pick a team that you picked earlier in the pool. If your team loses, you are eliminated. The last person standing wins. In the NFL version of this pool, a winner is almost always determined before the end of the regular season, which means that the entire field is available to pick each week, other than teams that have byes. The NCAA tournament survivor pool adds an additional strategy element, because you don't want to pick the top seeds in the first round or two; you'll want to save them for later in the tournament as the field shrinks and you have fewer teams to pick from. If you use up the eventual final teams in the first few rounds, you won't be able to even make a pick in the semifinal games and may end up losing by default!
8. Fantasy draft/auction
This one is especially fun if you can get together to do a live draft. Instead of drafting players, however, you draft teams. Gather a group of four, eight or 16 people and draft every team participating in the 64-team field. (Yes, I know there are technically now 68 teams in the field, but let's ignore the "First Round" play-in games as just about every pool does as well.) Eight is probably the best number, because it gives you eight rounds in the draft. Assign points for a win in each round, and the person with the most points at the end of the tournament wins. There's plenty of strategy in this format as well, especially because you want to avoid drafting teams that might end up playing each other early in the tournament.
An auction can also be a fun way to fill out a field. How much are people going to be willing to spend on one of the top seeds? Will your $1 bid on a No. 12 seed hold up and give you a big upset in the First Round?
7. Bet against the spread
While office pools with brackets are the most common way people wager on the NCAA basketball tournament throughout the U.S., most of the money wagered in Las Vegas sportsbooks on the tournament is bet on individual games against the spread. For those who don't know much about sports betting, sportsbooks set a "line" for each game, selecting a team as the favorite by a certain number of points. If a team is a 7.5-point favorite and wins eight or more points, wagers on that team would be winners. If the favorite loses or wins by seven or less, wagers on that team would lose and wagers on the underdog would be winners.
You might not want to bet on every game in the tournament, but if you know your college basketball, you might find some lines where you think you have an advantage. You can make these bets at any sportsbook in Nevada, and if you're in a jurisdiction where sports betting on the Internet is legal, there are plenty of online options as well.
6. Futures bet
If you want the chance at a big payoff without having to risk much money, a futures bet might be just your ticket. Also available at brick-and-mortar sportsbooks and at online properties, you can pick teams to make the final four or win the championship. Odds aren't available for this year's tournament yet, but picking one of the top seeds to win the title might pay 3/1, while picking a lower seed to make the semifinals might pay more than 200/1. These are long shots and hard to win to be sure, but if your team advances a few rounds and is in a close game down the stretch, you're going to be pretty excited about the $10 wager you made at 50/1.
5. Squares pool
Another pool that borrows from football (most commonly the Super Bowl), an NCAA tournament squares pool works the same way a football squares pool does. Using a 10x10 grid, each space gets two numbers, one for one team and one for another. People buy grid spaces, and once the final score for the game is determined, the last digit of each teams' score is used to determine who wins. The fun thing about the NCAA tournament is that, with so many games, you can have lots of winners. There are lots of ways to organize this, but I think the best way to do it is to have each round worth the same amount of money. Since there are 32 games in the first round, there are lots of chances to win, but each game is only worth 1/32 of the championship game.
4. Pick each round
This is similar to a traditional bracket pool, except that you get to pick the winners in each round based on the matchup that actually happens, regardless of how you did in previous rounds. That No. 3 seed you had advancing to the final four lost in the first round? Well, your bracket isn't busted; you just lost a first-round game. You've caught Cinderella fever after watching a No. 12-seed advance win its first two games? You can pick them to win in the regional round now that you know more about them.
This format works especially well if you decide to reward people for picking upsets, because people are willing to take risks if they know it won't ruin their bracket when the upset they picked loses.
3. In-game betting
Basketball is a game of flow and momentum. You can watch a game and get a good read on which team and which players are on, and which teams aren't. The nice thing about in-game betting is that you can get a sense of who you think has the edge and make your bets accordingly. You can make in-game bets at several properties in Las Vegas (including The Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino sportsbook, which Vin wrote about last year), and you can also make in-game bets at a number of online sportsbooks.
Parlays and teasers are great ways to bet on the NCAA tournament. Parlays are bets on two or more games that require the bettor to be right on every pick in order to win. Because they're a lot harder to win, the payoffs are quite a bit higher (usually 6/1 on a three-team parlay). Teasers are similar, but give you a few extra points (usually 4, 4.5 or 5 points) to move the line in your favor. Say you pick a three-team, 4.5-point teaser, and you decide to back a two-point favorite as one of your three picks. The teaser moves the line 4.5 points so that portion of the wager will be a winner if the favorite wins no matter what the score is, and you'll even win if the favorite loses by one or two points. Once again, all parts of the teaser wager must hit in order to win your bet.
Since there are multiple games going in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, parlays and teasers are great ways to bet on the first couple of rounds so you can have a rooting interest in a large number of games without having to place a wager on every game.
1. Point spread bracket lottery
This might be my new favorite way to bet on the NCAA tournament. One of the reasons I love it is because it preserves the bracket format, but requires absolutely no knowledge of basketball in order to win.
Ideally you find 15 other people to throw in an entry fee, then each person in the pool gets four random teams. You can determine these teams randomly in each bracket, or give each person the same seed in each bracket.
Since a No. 1 seed has a huge advantage over a No. 16, you even things out by determining the winner of each round by using the spread. If your team beats the spread, you advance to the next round, even if your team doesn't. For instance, say you're the No. 16 seed and your team is a 35-point underdog but only loses by 28. While your team didn't advance, you did, so you now adopt the No. 1 seed as your team. You can assign points for each round, just give the champion all the money, or split it up among the people who make it to the semifinal and championship rounds. Regardless of how you set it up, you'll watch the games with interest – even the ones that are blowouts – to make sure your team advances.
Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd has covered the gambling industry since 2006. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi. Follow him on Twitter @CasinoCity_AT.