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The used to be a time when the second week of March meant buying corned beef for the St. Patrick’s Day party. It also meant buying extra toner cartridges for the office because everyone was printing their NCAA Tournament brackets and studying up for Calcuttas ahead of the season-ending college basketball tournament.

The pandemic completely nuked the 2020 tournament. The event is back this month, but a lot of offices cannot say the same. With many employees now working from home full- or part-time, many casual fans must fill out brackets online or not at all. The online sites have been around for years, but this is the NCAA Tournament that might finally kill off the old pen-and-paper way of doing things.

With the proliferation of casino gambling, analysts expect more than $1 billion in legal wagering on this year’s tourney. Meanwhile, an under-the-radar alternative to filling out brackets continues to gain prominence.

What is a Calcutta auction?

The ultimate goal of sports is to determine a winner, whether it’s golf, tennis, basketball, or horse racing. Naturally, such competitions attract wagering, and the Calcutta auction is a popular alternative to picking game-by-game winners.

In a Calcutta auction for the NCAA Tournament in basketball, participants bid on teams one at a time. The auctions are often semi-elaborate social gatherings, with lunch or dinner being served because the bidding on the top teams can be as competitive as the games themselves and time-consuming.

Once the 64 teams making it to the main draw of the 68-team tournament have been auctioned off, the coordinator adds up the prize pool and calculates round-by-round payouts. Each of the tournament’s 63 games nets the owners of winning teams a slice of the pot. In the case of a low seed scoring a first-round upset, that single victory could more than recoup what the participant spent in the auction.

NCAA Tournament Calcutta auctions are a pricy alternative

The nature of the format makes Calcutta auctions inherently more expensive. Rather than an unlimited number of people filling out NCAA Tournament brackets at $2 or $5 or even $20 a pop, Calcuttas have a limit of 64 entrants. But the prize pool is driven by bidding that could become enormously expensive.

Darren Rovell, who covers gambling for The Action Network, reported on Twitter this week about a Calcutta. The winning bid on the Gonzaga University team was $125,000. The total pot of $860,400 meant that the average paid for rights to each of the 64 teams was more than $13,400.

There can be considerable Calcutta wagering in major golf tournaments like the U.S. Open, too. Interestingly, the U.S. Golf Association issued a warning to amateur golfers last year that they could endanger their playing status by participating in Calcuttas.

There are no hard and fast rules dictating how much each tournament victory is worth, but The Action Network cited one formula in which a first-round victory earns the owner 0.5% of the pool and a second-round win is worth 1%. Victories become progressively more lucrative, with the championship game worth 8%.

If the Calcutta that Rovell cited is organized under that model and Gonzaga captures the title, the person paying $125,000 for the Zags would collect about $206,500 at the end of the tournament. They would still walk away with a small profit (about $12,600) if Gonzaga reaches the final but loses.

The pros and cons of entering the auction


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The best part of participating in a Calcutta auction rather than filling out NCAA Tournament brackets is that the gambler knows immediately where he or she stands. The team is either still alive or done for the year. With brackets, someone must add up scores after each round, and players near the lead can’t be sure of the maximum remaining points that rivals can score.

The Action Network cites other advantages to Calcuttas as:

  • You can spend as much or as little as you want.
  • It’s not a winner-take-all situation; by their team’s third or fourth of a possible six victories, a good number of players are already turning a profit.  

On the downside, Calcutta auctions are difficult to organize. Even in the digital era, it can be a tedious process unless all the bidders are in the same room at once. Also, bidders risk spending more than they can afford.

How to get help: In the U.S., contact the National Council on Problem Gambling helpline at 1-800-522-4700.