It’s not just the N.C.A.A. basketball tournaments that are back. So is the joy — and the heartache — of winning or bombing in a bracket pool every March, a shared experience taking on new appreciation in an era of coronavirus lockdowns.
It has been two years since the last men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, two years since Americans have had the shared experience of diving into bracket pools with friends, family members and work colleagues. And so this year it seems people are taking them a bit more seriously — or simply relishing the opportunity to agonize over them at all.
Ned Garno, 54, a Syracuse fan who has traveled as far as Hawaii to watch the Orange play, remains faithful to the team, even if he did not pick them for a deep run this year. But a bracket is a bracket, and he filled out three this year.
“If anything, I think the pause and everyone’s lifestyle has made it so that people are more apt to tune in,” said Garno, a lawyer who grew up near Syracuse in Oswego, N.Y. “We took a pause in a lot of sports and so forth in the last year, so now that the stuff is back and is coming back, I think that makes people even more excited to watch.”
The return of the weekslong college basketball bonanza has many fans and newcomers connecting with new faces online and devising more intelligent models to mitigate their risks in a year of uncertainty.
Shannon Flaskerud, 42, joined a Facebook group for graduates of her university, the University of California at Santa Barbara, to find a familiar community after she moved to Reno, Nev., in the middle of the pandemic. She ended up coordinating a pool of 100 people, most of them strangers.
“It closes this huge gap that we’re all missing of interaction with friends and family, and having this shared experience which we’ve been doing for years and years with no problem,” she said in a phone interview on Thursday.
Flaskerud has been a bracket devotee for years. She joined her first pool at age 23, when she worked as a ski instructor in Tahoe, Calif., and won it. For years afterward, she started one every March for her co-workers as a mental health guidance counselor in Palo Alto, Calif. This year, she said, it felt important to carry on that tradition, even in a new location and with new faces. And partly because the Gauchos of Santa Barbara are back in the tournament for the first time since 2011.
The men’s and women’s basketball championships were among the first major sporting events canceled as the pandemic escalated in March 2020. For their return this year, each tournament is being held entirely in one state, with the men’s tournament in the Indianapolis area and the women’s tournament in and around San Antonio, as a means to limit the spread of the virus. Each event will permit a limited number of spectators.
For fans who would not typically attend games sprawled across the country in person, there is a welcome sense of community in once again coordinating over text, Facebook and video calls from afar.
Round 1: Live Updates
“It’s definitely hard to not be able to put a piece of paper in front of somebody and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this office pool, it will only take five minutes to fill out,’” Kolby KickingWoman, 29, a reporter and producer based in Pittsburgh, said in an interview on Thursday. Despite the lack of proximity, KickingWoman has encouraged co-workers to fill out online brackets. While he would normally get together to watch games with friends and family, his screens will have to do this year, another pandemic adaptation.
“We can pull up a game on two different laptops, check the score of another on your phone, make your own kind of ‘basketball overload,’ if you will,” he said. “It’s just that camaraderie of hanging out and watching sports.”
For others, that the tournaments are even happening is a sign of normalcy peeking its head around the corner. Miguel Pineda, 25, recalled the cancellation of the events last year as the first big signal that even reliable activities could not be taken for granted. He started a new job in the fall and has never met his co-workers in person, he said; he is hoping to make a good impression with his bracket.
The pandemic has definitely affected his choices.
“People are just a little bit like more risk-averse, and so they’ll probably choose a one or two or three seed, as opposed to an upset,” Pineda said. Considering his own bracket, he added, “Maybe I have gotten a little bit more cautious about my selections following this year.”
Ted Falkenhayn, 22, a senior at the University of Chicago, said he devised his own predictability model in the span of 24 hours to help determine his bracket. His model is based on up to 20 different data points, including a factor to measure the chance of upsets, historical statistics and big momentum plays. His prediction? The tournament will come down to two top seeds, Illinois and Gonzaga.
He is not betting on those odds, he said. But it was a good way to put off final exams.
“After the first few games, it feels like March,” he said Friday morning.
Garno, on the other hand, is just ready for the snarky texts and surprises that come along with being a Syracuse superfan. When asked who would win, based on his 40 years of betting and attending more than 800 games, Garno admitted he had no idea. “Who ever knows?”
“I mean if I knew that, I would be a very rich man,” he said with a laugh.
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