Open Mic

Warren Buffett and Quicken Loans Anticipated Up to 15 Million People Would Enter Their Billion Dollar March Madness Basketball Challenge. Was the Real Number of Entries Millions Fewer?

Chuck Ross Posted March 24, 2014 at 3:04 AM

A widely distributed sports report by the Associated Press last Friday, March 21, 2014, began “The billion dollar dream is over.

“A second day of upsets ended any chance of someone having a perfect NCAA tournament bracket in Warren Buffett’s $1 billion challenge.”

The story also had this paragraph: “Quicken Loans, which is sponsoring … the contest, said on its Twitter feed that it wouldn’t reveal the number of entrants to the challenge. The pool was supposed to be capped at 15 million entries. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if they had let more people join.”

Given that last line, it seems to me that the implication in the story is that most likely the contest, which asked entrants to pick the winners of all 63 games in the current, ongoing men’s college basketball tournament -- popularly known as March Madness -- pulled in close to the capped number of entries, which was 15 million.

Adding to that perception is that fact that ESPN, which also runs a bracket for March Madness -- for which the winner can win a $10,000 gift card -- is transparent about the number of entries it receives. This year that number was about 11 million.

If ESPN, offering only a “paltry” ten grand, got 11 million entries, certainly the Buffett Bracket, with its promise of $1 billion for a perfect entry, must have reached its goal of 15 million entries, one would think.

Plus, even if one didn’t pick a perfect bracket, the Buffett-Quicken Loans team says it will give $100,000 to each of 20 people who entered brackets with the top 20 scores. And since, like the ESPN contest, the Buffett-Quicken Loans contest costs nothing to enter, surely reaching 15 million entries sounded reasonable.

In fact, such was the anticipation of the success of this promotional contest, that after the challenge was first announced in January, the number of entries the Buffett-Quicken Loans team would accept was upped from 10 million to 15 million. They also changed the rules to allow one entry per person, as opposed to one entry per household.

Shockingly, my guess is that there were only about 2.5 million entries for the Buffett Bracket. By the way, in the ESPN contest, one person can submit up to 10 entries. So while ESPN had about 11 million entries, we don’t know exactly how many individual people that represents. In the Buffett Bracket, it was only one entry per person. So 2.5 million entries would also mean 2.5 million people entered. Not a small number, but nothing close to 15 million.

I only say “guess” because when I asked Quicken Loans to confirm my number, a press spokesperson emailed me last night, Sunday, March 23, 2014, writing: “We are not disclosing the number of entrants in the Billion Dollar Bracket challenge.” I will now explain how I arrived at my number, and please let me know if you find my evidence compelling.

When I signed up for the Buffett Bracket on Yahoo Sports, which is hosting the contest, I finally came to a screen that said before I could fill out my bracket choices I had to respond to an email that had supposedly been sent to my email address. When I checked my email, it was not there. Fortunately, there was a “resend” button on the Yahoo screen. And I clicked on it. And I waited. Nothing in my email. I had to do this several times, over a number of hours (and, as I recall, actually over a few days) before I finally received the email. I clicked on the appropriate “Verify Email” button in that email they had sent me, and it was smooth sailing from then on.

Next, my wife decided she wanted to enter the contest as well. She had the same trouble I had getting the initial email that would, in turn, let her verify her email address and start filling out her bracket. Like me, she was finally successful. Unfortunately, her verification didn’t come through until March 19, and by the time she actually went to fill out her bracket, it was after the deadline -- which was March 20 at 1 a.m. ET.

Despite the fact my wife had missed the deadline to fill out her bracket, she had made the deadline to be in the contest. So in every slot on her bracket, in red, the word “none” was automatically filled in by the Buffett Bracket program, indicating no team had been selected. And as the games started being played and finished in the tourney, at the top of her entry it would say 0/1, 0/2, 0/3, etc., with the second number being the number of games having been played.

Now, at this moment, as we await the tournament to continue next week, my bracket, “Charles’s Crazy Bracket” (name chosen by the Buffett Bracket program, not me), shows on the top, where it says “Correct Picks,” 34/48, which means out of the 48 games played so far, I’ve picked 34 correctly. Next to that it says “Pools” and “Quicken Loans Billion.” Click on that and it says my ranking in the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge Pool is 730,031.

It also says that my ranking in the My Tourney Pick’em Bracket is 1,444,746. The Tourney Pick’em Bracket is what Yahoo Sports has long called its free contest for users who want to fill out brackets for the men’s college basketball tournament. If you entered the Buffett Bracket you automatically got entered into the Tourney Pick’em Bracket as well. And, like ESPN’s contest, each person can enter ten brackets in the Tourney Pick’em contest.

Given the rankings, we now know that I’m either in 730,031st place by myself, or tied for that place, in the Buffett Bracket contest. And in the Yahoo Tourney contest I’m in 1,444,746th place by myself or tied for that place.

What we don’t know, however, is out of how many total places, or entries, those ranking are for. In other words, am I in 730,031st place out of one million total places or out of 10 million total places?

That’s where my wife’s bracket comes into play. Because she didn’t get to fill it out with various team names, each game shows up as a loss. So at the top of her bracket right now it says she is 0/48. (Okay, you’re smiling because you’re one step ahead of me here, but let me finish.)

Click on her rankings and here is what it says: In the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge Pool, she is in 2,477,374th place, or tied for that place. And in the Yahoo Tourney Pick’em she is listed in 4,844,054th place, or tied for that place.

Now here’s the “Eureka!” moment: Because she has no wins, she has to be either in last place alone or tied for last place. Either that or Yahoo is lying to us about the rankings.

Thus, figuring that my wife is tied for last place, I’m going to say that there are about 2.5 million entries to the Buffett Bracket, aka the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge.

And I’m also going to say that then there are about 5 million entries in the Yahoo Tourney Pick’em contest.

The Quicken Loans folks won’t say how many are in its contest. As for the Yahoo contest, I found an article on the Yahoo website that said last year there were about 3 million entries in its Tourney Pick’em contest. That there were then about 5 million entries to that contest this year seems right, when one adds in the Buffett Bracket entries and figures that there is some duplication with people who would have entered the Yahoo contest even if there hadn’t been the Buffett contest.

In an article published ten days ago on ESPN.com by the award-winning sports writer Rick Reilly, Reilly spoke to both Buffett and Dan Gilbert, who owns both Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavaliers professional basketball team.

Wrote Reilly: “Gilbert stands to gain as many as 15 million new sales leads with the registration process alone on this thing. ‘You can't buy that kind of PR,’ Gilbert says. ‘We love this.'"

I wonder if he’s loving it less if the real number is closer to 2.5 million.

In the piece Reilly also talks about Buffett’s insuring the billion dollars that Quicken would have to pay out for a perfect bracket:

“Buffett's National Indemnity Company is taking the risk on the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge. If you win, you can take $25 million a year for 40 years or a $500 million check right away. But Buffett is betting you won't. He wrote the policy himself.

" 'I just sat right in that chair,' he says, pointing to his packed little office, 'and I did the calculations. Took me about 10 or 15 minutes. I hope I did it right.'"

Later in the piece Reilly adds, "Buffett won't reveal what he charged Quicken for the premium, but I took a shot. I knew the lowest odds quoted for a perfect bracket were from Duke professor Ezra Miller, who estimates a skilled handicapper has about a billion-to-1 chance. Buffett, naturally, would quote the lowest possible odds so as to keep everything in his favor. So, if Buffett were insuring against one person doing it, at a billion-to-1 odds, he would charge about $1. But, because 15 million people are expected to try, it should be about $15 million, tops.

“[Buffett] and his twinkle and his lopsided haircut paused. And then he said, 'You're good, but I'm not saying.'"

If only about 2.5 million people entered the Buffett Bracket challenge, does that mean Buffett’s National Indemnity made $2.5 million instead of an anticipated $15 million?

The idea for this Buffett Bracket came from Buffett, who then found Quicken Loans to work with as a partner. The contest is a lot of fun, and it certainly caught the imagination of many. Maybe next year, with more publicity and a smoother-working system on Yahoo -- or another tech partner -- the registration can go a lot easier and a lot more people will sign up to participate. Because the more people that participate the greater the chance that someone will actually pick a perfect bracket -- small as that possibility is.

And Mr. Buffett, please, next year a little more transparency. Make public the number of people who are playing. That’s part of the fun.

[Please let me know what you think about my piece. Because of security issues, we recently had to shut down the ability for readers to leave comments about our stories. We are working to fix that. Meanwhile, please feel free to send me your comments via email at chkross@crain.com. Just write “bracket” in the subject line. I will post any comments here, as long as they are appropriate -- no swearing, etc. -- regardless of whether they reflect favorably or not about what I’ve written.]