For almost half a century, American college basketball fans have spent innumerable hours poring over their NCAA March Madness brackets in an attempt to win cash and bragging rights over their co-workers. The tradition is tightly woven into the fabric of American culture, but its threads are tangled. For all their cultural significance, the official inventors of the March Madness office pool have never been honored for their contribution. What’s even stranger is that the people who probably did invent it haven’t bothered to fight for the title.
Over the years, only two parties have stepped forth as inventors of the college basketball pool.
The first is the community at Jody’s Club Forest, a Staten Island Irish bar:
Founded by Jody Haggerty, Jody’s is often cited as the first to set up a pool in 1977. It has since become notorious for running one of the largest and most lucrative pools in the United States, boasting 160,000 entries and a payout of $1.5 million in 2006.
As NCAA games glowed from rows of overhead TVs the Friday before Selection Sunday, Terence Haggerty, Jody’s son, leaned over the tavern’s wood-paneled bar and explained to Inverse that his father’s tournament pool was just “a neighborhood thing.”
The pool shut down in 2006 after scrutiny from the IRS. But the money was beside the point. It was, as Terence puts it, “just a couple people getting together — let’s do something fun.”
The invention of the NCAA tournament pool is brilliantly simple: Players predict the winner for each match-up, then tally up points for correct predictions in each of the tournament’s rounds. By awarding points for wins, everyone in the pool could realistically have a vested interest in the tournament up until the championship game, instead of being knocked out and losing interest because the team they chose to win ended up on the wrong end of an upset. This was the critical invention that spawned the tournaments that are so popular today.
“How’s your bracket holding up?” is standard office small talk for three weeks every spring because of this bar on Staten Island. ESPN, which claims a mega-popular points-based platform, announced that in 2017, some 13.3 million NCAA tournament brackets were filled out on its site.
In 2018, there are 68 teams vying for the college national championship. A “First Four” round will be held March 13-14, then the first and second rounds are March 15-18. The bracket is made up for four regions (Midwest, West, South, East), and the winner of each goes to the “Final Four,” which starts on March 31 and ends with the NCAA tournament final on Monday, April 2.
The first pool at Jody’s Club Forest, in 1977, cost $10 a pick. With a total of 88 bar-goers taking part, the inaugural pot was only $880.
As the community grew over the years, recalls Terence, there was so much money being exchanged that his father recruited security guards and barred his teenage son from entering the basement where the money was counted. Over the years, as bets were placed and debts were collected, the March Madness pool turned the quiet bar into a scene resembling the raucous trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Terence modestly praises his late father’s role in inventing one of America’s most beloved traditions. “I wouldn’t say he was the one who created the bracket, but he definitely helped make it what it is today,” he says.
But in the Seventies, the same tradition was evolving 640 miles away in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I wouldn’t say he was the one who created the bracket, but he definitely helped make it what it is today.”
The pot for Jody’s Forest Club’s NCAA pool in 2003 reached $762,000.
In March 1997, an article in the Louisville Courier-Journal by sports journalist Bob Hill described a strange letter that had come in the mail. In it, a U.S. Postal Service delivery analyst named Bob Stinson wrote that he became the first person to begin a truly sophisticated NCAA basketball office pool in 1978.
“He said he’d like to talk about the fact that he invented the pool,” said Hill, on the phone with Inverse from Hidden Hill, his flower-filled nursery and sculpture garden in Indiana. In his conversation with Stinson, who Inverse was unable to contact, Hill learned that Stinson created the pool to transform college wagering from a gamble based on sheer luck to one that actually rewarded knowledge of the tournament and sport.
“He was a thoughtful guy. He thought: ‘How can I make this better?’”
After all, before the pool was invented, prospective bettors simply picked a team at random and hoped for the best.
“I remember drawing names out of hats — nothing sophisticated as that,” says Hill. Stinson’s system would “allow a larger playoff would not limit entrants, and would sustain entrants until the last foul,” Hill wrote in his 1997 article.
Hill, now retired from journalism, still believes in Stinson’s claim. “It was a good tale. Nobody could refute it,” he says. “And to this day, as far as I know, nobody has — I don’t know how you would. Innocent until proven guilty, I guess.”
Hill has never heard of Jody’s Club Forest.
“It was a good tale. Nobody could refute it.”
Though Hill’s system seemed to have evolved independently of Haggerty’s pool a year later, its effect on the local culture was the same.
“It became a community party, a newsroom party,” says Hill, describing his own experiences in the office pool. “Everybody’s in, you carefully check every day and the next day how you did. You sit there and have a coffee break or whatever and talk about it. It just dominated the conversation.”
And pretty much anybody who has ever filled out a March Madness bracket since 1977 or 1978 — but who’s counting? — could describe the same experience. This year, the roughly 70 million Americans who will fill out brackets will join the same community.
They all have Haggerty, or Stinson, or perhaps some still-unnamed basketball fan, to thank — or blame — for inventing the office pool. We may never know. Hill, when he first published his article, braced himself for the flood of people trying to refute Stinson’s claim, writing: “Somebody is sure to call with the claim that he or she invented the NCAA Office Pool in 1939 – the first year of the tournament.” But nobody ever called.
Stinson, for his part, was open to the possibility that a similar idea might have evolved in parallel with his. “Ideas crop up simultaneously,” he said in his original conversation with Hill, “but I wasn’t aware of anybody else doing it.”
Today, Terence Haggerty is equally nonchalant about claiming to be the first. He has never heard of Bob Stinson.
“It was good for Staten Island, but most importantly it was good for the neighborhood — for our neighborhood.”
“If he wants to take credit for it, go right ahead,” says Terence from the bar, garlands of green shamrocks swinging behind him. ”It doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t think it would matter to my father, either, if he was still around.”