It's the most wonderful time of the year for college basketball fans. The NCAA released its men's Division I basketball bracket last night and people across the country and beyond will be filling out their brackets for the next few days, hoping their Cinderella pick makes it to the Sweet Sixteen.
If you're looking for a place to fill out a bracket, the options are nearly endless. And some of them offer great prizes. Here are 10 great contests.
NOTE: Some of these contests are free to enter, while others require an entry fee. Inclusion of these pools on this list does not endorse their legality. Please be sure that gambling is legal in your jurisdiction before making any wagers.
10. CBS Sports Bracket Challenge
If you're a big college basketball fan, you have to fill out a bracket at CBS Sports. The grand prize is a $10,000 prize package, including four tickets to the 2014 Final Four plus $6,000 for travel. And even if you miss a few first round picks, you don't have to give up hope. The prize is randomly awarded to a player who finishes in the top 10 percent of all entries.
9. World of Beer Bracket Challenge
I don't live even close to any of World of Beer's 37 locations, but I wish I did. While the top prize isn't huge (a $200 World of Beer gift card), it's one I'd make use of. And the bar is offering local prizes for patrons as well, including a free draft on game night if your local team wins. If you live near one, or if you'll be traveling somewhere where you'll have a chance to stop by, head to the WOB Bracket Challenge and take a shot.
8. ESPN.com Tournament Challenge
ESPN's bracket champion wins a $10,000 Best Buy gift card to trick out all the electronics in their home. And once again, if you miss a couple early round games, you're not out of the running; the winner is selected randomly out of all entries that finish in the top 1 percent.
7. iSportsLinks $10,000 Alternate Strategy Bracket Challenge
This bracket contest takes a different format. Rather than having point values escalate in later rounds, each correct pick for the entire tournament is worth one point. Get a first round game winner? Get one point. Get the national champion right? Also worth just one point.
If you get all 63 games right (the first four games – which should be called "play-in games" but the NCAA refuses to do so -- don't count), you win $10,000. Get 60-62 right, you win $1,000, and if the winner gets 55-59, he will be awarded a $100 bonus. So long as there are more than 500 entries, there will be cash prizes for the top-four pickers. You get two brackets free, and additional brackets cost $2.
6. Bookmaker Sportsbook and Racebook 2013 Bracket Madness
Bookmaker Sportsbook and Racebook's bracket contest awards a $100,000 prize for a perfect bracket, and since that probably won't happen, a $10,000 prize to first place, $5,000 for second and $2,500 for third. Players get a free entry when they make a $300 deposit, or they can get entries for $10 apiece.
5. Yahoo! Sports Tournament Pick'em
Yahoo! Sports' Tournament Pick'em is a free-entry bracket contest, with the top score earning a $10,000 cash prize. The best part? While other free-entry sites give a $10,000 prize pool to the winner, Yahoo gives straight cash. Like other free-entry bracket contests, the site also allows you to join "groups" so you can run your own pool with friends.
4. The Score Bracket Buster
Run by the Canadian sports media company The Score, The Score's Bracket Buster contest awards $100,000 Canadian for a perfect bracket, $10,000 for 62 or 61 correct picks, and $1,000 for 60 or 59 correct picks. There are guaranteed prizes too, with $2,500 for first, $1,000 for second and $500 for third. And the best part? You don't have to be Canadian to play.
3. Sportsbook.com $100,000 Bracket Challenge
Sportsbook.com's Bracket Challenge offers the largest guaranteed first-place prize I could find, with a whopping $75,000 going to first. But the prizes don't stop there. The top five finish in the money, with second earning $12,500 and fifth claiming $1,500. And the next 1,000 finishers get a $5 free bet, to boot.
Your first entry will run you $15, with the next five costing $10 and the next nine running $5 each. Players are limited to a maximum of 15 brackets.
2. FOX Sports Bracket Challenge
The FOX Sports Bracket Challenge offers the largest prize for a perfect bracket out there – a full $1 million. Of course, the odds against hitting a perfect bracket are pretty steep. DePaul mathematics professor Jeff Bergen says the odds against hitting it are 1/128 billion even if you know quite a bit about college basketball. That said, the $1 million prize, as unlikely as it is to be awarded, gets this challenge close to the top of this list.
Even if you don't buck the odds and have a perfect bracket, the winner gets $1,000 cash, and the top 200 get FOX Sports Shop Bucks.
1. Run your own
I still remember the first pool I ever won. It was 1996, I was a senior in high school, it was a round-by-round pick'em pool, and it was run by our school superintendent's son. The worst part was I had to betray my rooting interest (Syracuse) in the championship game in order to win, as I figured Kentucky was too good to beat. This was before the Internet made running pools automatic, so we had to fill out our sheets and hand them in to the commissioner, who also had to work to hide the fact that he was running the pool from his father.
Running a league on pen and paper brings an old-school charm to the tournament, and having people wonder what the standings are as the games are occurring allows for some suspense which doesn't exist much in our real-time world these days. So print off your brackets, distribute them around the office, and get to work.
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.