Wednesday, March 14, 2007

From Toronto to Chicago to Basketball

I just returned from visiting the University of Toronto, my first visit to the campus in 18 years. I spent much of my time talking to the same people I did back then, Charlie Rackoff, Steve Cook and Faith Fich (now Faith Ellen). Also former NEC postdoc and current Toronto prof Avner Magen and my former student Rahul Santhanam visiting there for the spring.

The biggest news in Canada is happening in Chicago, the trial of Lord Conrad Black, but it barely makes the news here. Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Tribune wrote today about the non-story. The big news in Chicago is a 73 degree day yesterday, Mayor Daley's wrangling to get the 2016 Olympics in Chicago and, of course, March Madness.

What speaks math more than the NCAA Men's Division I Collegiate Basketball tournament that gets underway tomorrow. First you have a beautiful binary tree published in all the US papers (and Canadian ones too) and filled out by millions in their office pools. Nothing like a single elimination contest to explain exponential growth, 64 teams need only 6 rounds to find a champion. Technically they have 65 teams now, and they needed an extra single-game round yesterday to get to the 64 remaining teams.

The tournament draws more betting, legal and illegal, than any other event (though the Super Bowl draws more for a single game). These bets lead to predictions. With sites like Tradesports you can get prices on securities that give you estimated probabilities. Not absolute probabilities but those who use the markets to fill out their office pools likely won't do too poorly, even with no understanding of college basketball.


  1. I'm glad there are other people with the same appreciation of how the wide dissemination of all the interesting theoretical questions the big dance brings up.

    You should see the effect it's having on the facebook; brackets brackets everywhere.

  2. Not to mention the great opportunity this provides to explain to thousands of mathematicians and computer scientists around the world what on earth the "NCAA Men's Division I Collegiate Basketball tournament" is.

  3. I can understand if you're not from the United States and you don't know what the NCAA tournament is, but if you're from the US and you don't know what it is, frankly I'm mystified. Especially if you did your undergrad or grad school in the US...

    It like saying "What's the Super Bowl?"

  4. Question from a non-American here...This "Super Bowl", why a bowl, why not a cup like most sports, or a tray like in tennis? Bowls are for dog food.

  5. Question from a non-American here...This "Super Bowl", why a bowl, why not a cup like most sports, or a tray like in tennis?

    It has nothing to do with the trophy.

    Bowl: 7. an edifice with tiers of seats forming sides like those of a bowl, having the arena at the bottom; stadium.

    The use of 'Bowl' for a football competition originates in a single location: the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, CA where a post-season football game associated with the 'Tournament of Roses Parade' has been played since 1902. (L.A. also has the Hollywood Bowl concert venue, which takes advantage of a natural bowl.) The 'Rose Bowl Game' was often shortened to the 'Rose Bowl'. Several other copy-cat names for games were introduced: the Orange Bowl in the 1920's, Sugar Bowl, and Cotton Bowl in the 1930's and others like the Gator Bowl were added in temperate venues in the 1940's and later.

    Fast-forward to the late 1960's. As a bit of marketing at the suggestion of Lamar Hunt, the 3rd AFL/NFL Championship game was named Super Bowl III (so technically there never was a Super Bowl I or II). The leagues didn't merge until after the 4th such game and they were re-aligned into conferences.

  6. Non-American Anonymous 4 here.

    I'm thoroughly impressed with your answer, but honestly, I was kidding about the 'Bowl' thing.