A New Kind of Madness: Grinnell College Basketball Pool Takes an Alternative Approach to the Bracket

Auction Format Yields "Expressive" Pool that Reveals Participants' Priorities

Mar 22, 2013, 15:35 ET from Grinnell College

GRINNELL, Iowa, March 22, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- A group of Grinnell College faculty and staff have come up with a way to make March Madness more interesting.

For the past few years, rather than filling out traditional brackets, the Grinnellians have each invested a predetermined amount of (imaginary) money in eight NCAA tournament teams through an auction format.

As Erik Simpson, a pool participant and associate professor of English at Grinnell, explained in a blog post, each participant has an imaginary $25 to spend as he or she chooses. "Teams are bought in a standard auction format, with rising bids in 10-cent increments," he notes. But in the Grinnell auction, participants don't choose one team to win each tournament game; instead, participants purchase teams according to whatever criteria are most important to them -- the team's win-loss record, personal affiliation, mascot name or whatever. This means that participants don't have to restrict their choices according to game or conference -- they pick the teams they like regardless of where the teams are in the bracket. 

Each game that a team wins is worth a certain percentage of the total auction pot. For example, in the eight-person Grinnell pool, each victory in the first round is worth $2.50. A win in the second round nets an additional $3. Victories in subsequent rounds earn a few bucks more, and the tournament champ earns a total of $28.50, against an initial investment of $25.

Grinnell's March Madness auction was born about five years ago, during an informal conversation between Simpson and Doug Cutchins, Grinnell's director of social commitment. Auction formats are standard in some fantasy sports, Simpson noted, "so Doug had this idea of applying it to March Madness." The notion caught on, and the March Madness auction has become a rite of spring.

Clearly, Grinnell auction participants aren't in this for the money. Instead, Simpson says, the unusual format is designed to keep the contest interesting. "The problem with the traditional bracket approach," he notes, is that the vast majority of the games have a conventional outcome. It's the favorite versus the underdog -- and it's therefore completely uninteresting to pick a favorite to win." In the auction approach, participants can't share teams -- the team "belongs to" the player who believes most strongly in that team and has bid the most for it. "So there are degrees of faith," Simpson explains. "You may be sure that Duke's going to win -- but how sure are you? That will determine how much you're willing to bid, and whether you wind up rooting for them in the end."

What this sets up, Simpson says, "is a pool that becomes expressive. You can tell where the participants' passions lie by looking at how they invest their money."

The decision-making process varies according to player. Although he teaches in the humanities, Simpson's bids are "strictly rational," he says. He comes to each year's auction armed with a spreadsheet that shows what he believes is each team's "strict rational price."  The spreadsheet can be updated on the fly -- so if Simpson is outbid on a team he wants, the updated spreadsheet provides him with the data he needs to choose the team that is statistically the next best option. "Sometimes I depart from the spreadsheet values in the heat of the draft," he says, "but I usually regret it."

Because of the pricing and value propositions that underlie the Grinnell auction, the event yields a different kind of bracket. This year, for example, Simpson picked three teams each in the East and Midwest conferences, and one team each from the West and South conferences. Participants don't get the standard benefit of having a winner or loser in every tournament game.

But there are other benefits. The auction format allows for differentiation, Simpson notes. "It acknowledges degrees of commitment; it's not just black and white," he says. In addition, like the traditional bracket, it builds excitement for underdogs: "Everyone remembers who had George Mason the year they won," he notes. Finally, and best of all, "it's fun," Simpson smiles.

The lack of a clear favorite in the current tournament kept bidding lively in this year's auction, Simpson noted. He said Florida was popular in Monday night's bidding, drawing heated offers from many participants.  

This year, Simpson has directed his "strictly rational" bids to a host of mid-ranked teams that he's familiar with. He "spent" $5.80 of his $25 on Michigan, for example; he also bid $5.30 for Syracuse and $5.10 for Wisconsin. Already, Butler's first-round win has nearly earned back the $2.90 that Simpson bid for the Bulldogs, while St. Mary's loss in the first round cost him only 10 cents.

About Grinnell College
Since its founding in 1846, Grinnell has become one of the nation's premier liberal arts colleges, enrolling 1,600 students from all 50 states and from as many international countries. Grinnell's rigorous academic program emphasizes excellence in education for students in the liberal arts; the college offers the B.A. degree in a range of departments across the humanities, arts and sciences. Grinnell has a strong tradition of social responsibility and action, and self-governance and personal responsibility are key components of campus life. More information about Grinnell College is available at www.grinnell.edu.

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SOURCE Grinnell College