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 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.
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.