As the hours tick down to the start of the NCAA Tournament, people across the country are poring over statistics and studying matchups and trendlines with the hope of coming up with the perfect bracket — or least a winning one.
Then there's Holly Weatherwax. The realtor from Reston, Virginia, on Tuesday dashed off two brackets she'll enter in a family pool. On one, she picked the Virginia Cavaliers to win the national championship. That's because her daughter attends the school. On the other, she picked the Duke Blue Devils. That's because she took a shine to Coach K, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill back in the 1990s.
"I do this very casually," Weatherwax said.
Others take it very seriously. According to American Gaming Association research, 40 million people filled out about 70 million brackets last year, and the average bet per bracket was $29. The trade group estimated $9.2 billion will be wagered on the tournament this year through office pools, Nevada sports books, offshore sites and illegal bookmakers.
John Dietrich, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior from Omaha, said he'll submit five or six brackets in various pools and plunk down a total of about $40 in entry fees. He's more analytical than Weatherwax. For each matchup, he looks at offensive and defensive scoring averages and how the teams fared against common opponents and top competition. He waits until just before tipoff of the first games to hit the send button.
Brad Wiemels, a Clemson University sophomore from Columbus, Ohio, evaluates the same metrics as Dietrich, plus he weighs performances at neutral sites and delves into stats that some would consider minutia. Wiemels helps friends who are filling out brackets and runs a personal website called "Bradketology" (http://bit.ly/1TMaH6Y).
Wiemels said he'll occasionally back up his brackets with a few bucks, but his priority is to win the annual pool among 20-30 family members and take home the prize known as the "Weirdy Doll."
"The trophy is coveted," he said. "You want to hold onto it, put it on the mantle, show it off. It's like a voodoo doll-looking thing. My second cousin found it somewhere. It's not something I would call a particularly impressive piece of artwork. There's a reason it's called the 'Weirdy Doll.'"
As of Tuesday afternoon, Kansas and Michigan State were the top two choices to win the national championship, according to brackets entered in contests run by ESPN, Yahoo.com and CBSSports.com.
Office pools have long been the most popular avenues for participation in this madness. They are against the rules — wink, wink — at many companies because gambling is illegal most places, not to mention that having employees devote time to picking winners can have an adverse effect on productivity.
Some workplaces, however, embrace the camaraderie.
Billionaire Warren Buffett announced on CNBC two weeks ago that one of his 300,000 Berkshire Hathaway employees could win $100,000 by picking the most consecutive winners in the tournament. Buffett said at least one employee will win the $100,000 prize, but if multiple employees tie, they will share it. Buffett said if an employee can somehow pick all 48 winners in the opening rounds, he'll pay that person $1 million a year for life.
The hectic pace of coaching the best team in the NBA doesn't stop the Golden State Warriors' Steve Kerr from keeping an eye on the tournament. Kerr played at Arizona, and his son, Nick, is a reserve guard for California.
"We'll have a tournament pool on our team, but don't tell anyone. It's probably illegal. There won't be any money involved. Let's make that clear," Kerr said.
Steve Cuddihy, who works for a computer manufacturing company in Burnsville, Minnesota, is a pioneer of online bracket contests. He's been running OfficePool64.com since the dial-up days of 1997. He knew he was getting to be big-time a few years later when the NCAA sent him a cease-and-desist order for using the trademarked terms "March Madness" and "Final Four" on his website.
About 1,500 brackets were submitted each year when he was starting out. That number has leveled off at about 450 in recent years, he said, because people have migrated to the big sports websites that run contests.
Cuddihy has discovered that luck is as important as skill in winning first prize. The 46-year-old follows the sport closely. His mother does not.
"I've never won my own pool in the 20 years I've run it," he said, "but my mom has."
AP Business Writer Josh Funk in Omaha, Nebraska, and AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in Oakland, California, contributed.
This story has been corrected to show that Warren Buffett made his contest announcement two weeks ago, not last week.