Win a Billion Dollars if you pick a perfect March Madness Bracket in online contest

bildeFilling out NCAA tournament bracket sheets is a contemporary American tradition. This year, though, there’s a mind-boggling pot of gold at the end of the NCAA rainbow. Warren Buffett has teamed up with Quicken Loans to offer $1 billion to anyone who submits a perfect bracket online with Yahoo Sports.

Yes, that’s a B-B-B-billion.

On paper, it looks amazing, especially since you can sign up free. But how good of a deal is it really? Here are four things to think about before you go diving into the Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge.

1. It’s free, but comes with a cost

There is no cost to sign up to play for the challenge, but there are strings attached.

To sign up, you need a Yahoo account. And to get registered, you need to give Quicken Loans your email address and cellphone number, and answer a few questions about your mortgage. That’s the minimum; the company hopes you’ll opt-in for more advertising potential.

Quicken Loans and Yahoo want to be assured the person submitting is old enough to be in the contest and can be reached if he or she wins. But it’s also a marketing gold mine, says Dave Vener, an executive with the merging Smith & Jones/Burst Marketing firm in Troy, N.Y.

With the cap on the contest set at 15,000,000 entrants, that’s potentially 15 million new email addresses and cellphone numbers the company has in fresh contacts.

“That’s a humongous amount of data, and in the marketing world, data is king,” Vener says.

Quicken Loans could sell the data to another company for a tidy profit. Vener says the response rate on an untargeted email blast might only be 0.5 to 1 percent. But with millions of emails in hand, a company buying that data could still have a “just huge” return on investment, he says.

Or, Quicken Loans could just as easily keep the data to itself and use it to boost its customer base.

Either way, the company’s brand recognition has been raised since the billion-dollar contest was announced. There’s been buzz around the challenge for months, and I’ve seen Buffett and Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loans chairman and owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, all over the media this week, talking about the challenge. It’s not a billion dollars worth of publicity, but …

2. Nobody’s really losing a billion dollars on this

If there’s anyone who could conceivably handle losing a billion dollars, it’s Buffett, one of the world’s richest men.

Of course, he isn’t planning to put a billion of his own on the line. Like most big-time contests, Buffett is taking out insurance on the long shot of somebody winning.

He didn’t say how much the insurance cost, though on CNBC  on Friday he said $10 million was “in the ballpark.”

Funny enough, though, Buffett is being insured by his own company, Berkshire Hathaway, so he would at least feel some sting if someone beat those odds. Speaking of which…

3. You’ll want a calculator for these odds

If you flipped a coin 63 times, the odds that you call each flip correctly is 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. That’s 9.2 quintillion, or 2 to the 63rd power.

That figure is quoted in the fine print on the bracket challenge page. It’s technically correct, but ignores the fact that college basketball games are not always 50/50 propositions.

For instance, the top 4 teams in the tournament have never, ever lost in the first round. Assuming that holds true this year, you’ve already shortened the coin-flip odds to 2 to the 59th power, or 1 in 576 quadrillion.

Still absurdly long odds. By comparison, you have 1 in 259 million odds of winning the Mega Millions.

Unlike a lottery, though, skill can play a role in picking NCAA winners. Like I said, games aren’t a coin flip; some teams are more talented than others. Armed with some knowledge, you could shorten those odds considerably.

A DePaul University math professor  dove into the odds question and thinks they’re actually in the neighborhood of 1 in 128 billion, not the quintillions or quadrillions. (Watch the video; it’s fascinating if you’re a stat nerd like me.)

Even with those odds, someone is definitely going to win…

4. Pay your uncle

Less publicized than the $1 billion prize are the 20 $100,000 prizes available to the best “imperfect” brackets.

Keeping with Quicken Loans’ business, the money can be used for buying, refinancing or remodeling a home.

With 20 definite winners out of 15 million entrants, 1 in every 750,000 brackets will earn that prize. Not great odds, but way better than the lottery (or going after the billion.)

Of course, should you win, you’re on your own to pay off the taxes for your prize, and you can expect to be docked at least 25 percent, and probably more. Unlike gambling winnings – for which you can write off some of your losses – there’s not much you can do to avoid paying the full share. Which means no matter what, Uncle Sam is definitely going to win in this challenge.

So yeah, this is a free shot at a billion-dollar payout, but I feel statistically safe in saying you’re not going to win. An even safer bet: Someone, somewhere is going to take the information you’ve provided by playing and try to advertise to you in the future.



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