Each year, millions of Americans fill out NCAA tournament brackets and billions of dollars are wagered on the event. Media companies dedicate countless hours to coverage, focusing primarily on prediction. No one seems to have precise statistics on the total time and money invested in NCAA pools, because the whole enterprise is so incredibly vast.
Yahoo! hosts a free bracket game, Tourney Pick'Em, that attracts tens of thousands of users. The winner collects a $10,000 prize. That's your 2010 champ pictured over on the right, enjoying a carrot. Her name is Buttons. And no, this is not a joke as far as I can tell.
You, me, everyone you know, and every national college basketball expert — Vitale, Bilas, Pomeroy, Kellogg, et al — were all schooled by Buttons the guinea pig this year.
This story would be kinda cute, if it weren't also a total indictment of mainstream sports analysis.
Technically, of course, Tourney Pick'Em was won by a human. His name is Jake Johnson, and he's an MBA student at the University of Tennessee. He'll get the $10K. He and his girlfriend share custody of Buttons and a second guinea pig, Brain. Johnson claims to have deferred to Buttons on nearly all of his NCAA picks.
We caught up with him to get the details on his methodology, and the story sounds legit.
"My family does a bracket pool every March," he told us via email, "where inevitably my sister — who maybe watches five minutes of sports per year — beats me, despite my living and breathing sports. Of course given the competitive nature of our sibling-ship, I never hear the end of it. To prove to my sister that it takes absolutely no knowledge of college basketball to do well, I decided to use the guinea pig to fill out a bracket.
"I read [Buttons] the names of the teams, and waited for her to choose a team by purring. We repeated this process for 58 of the 63 games, excluding the first round games for the No. 1 seeds and eliminating Ohio University in the first round — I have a strong personal grudge against the Bobcats."
So that's your winning formula in a nutshell: Carry the top seeds into Round 2, disrespect the Ohio Bobcats — who actually beat Georgetown in the first round — and wait for your rodent to purr.
I'm familiar with lots of ridiculous, arbitrary methods for making NCAA predictions, but this approach seems new. I don't think I was even aware that guinea pigs made noises.
Nonetheless, Buttons correctly predicted six of the Elite Eight, three of the Final Four, and she picked Duke over Butler in the title game. She didn't miss a thing in the West Region. Here's a link to the winning entry. Please take note of its name.
"We laughed at Buttons' decision to have Butler lose to Duke in the championship after beating Michigan State," said Jake. "Any knowledgeable human knows that two No. 5 seeds would never make it to the Final Four."
Well, obviously. In Johnson's family pool — where his picks were not pig-aided — he again lost to his sister.
Buttons will enjoy a few small habitat upgrades following the win, but she's already well cared for. Her day-to-day life isn't so different from anyone else's, really. "She enjoys carrots, kale, hay, and just about anything else she can eat — including her own poop, which is apparently something all guinea pigs do. Considering her recent success, I am not in a position to judge. She spends most of her day laying in one of her castles or her tiki hut."
OK, so there are certain differences — the castles, the kale — but at a fundamental level, we can all relate to Buttons.
Johnson tells us that some portion of the Pick'Em winnings will be donated to the Knoxville Guinea Pig Rescue, which seems appropriate. In case you're wondering, he and his girlfriend have not officially put Buttons on the market, but…
"I don't think the pig is for sale, but just tossing out a number — assuming $10,000 every March for the next 5 or 6 years, less cage-cleaning and carrot expenses — $45,000 doesn't seem too unreasonable. More likely, I would sell her services on consignment, and collect a portion of the inevitable winnings."
He will not discuss a breeding fee. "It makes good business sense to keep the market cornered on guinea pigs with future-seeing capabilities."
Can't argue with that. Congrats to Team Buttons. Well-played, pig.