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March Madness plays off the Web

Basketball fans head to the Web to track the prestigious college tournament--a contest that will decide not only a national champion but thousands of informal office betting pools.

    Basketball fans on Thursday headed to the Web to track their picks in the prestigious college tournament known as March Madness--a contest that will decide not only a national champion but thousands of informal office betting pools.

    Web sites are doing their part to help out and horn in on the annual ritual, which tracks 64 NCAA (National College Athletics Association) teams through a series of elimination rounds.

    At Easy Pool, for instance, visitors can download software that automates the task of running an NCAA office pool--a time-consuming chore for volunteer organizers who are frequently required to handle scores of entries. Points are assigned for picking winners through each round, with pots in some cases worth hundreds of dollars or more.

    Many Web sites are also sponsoring their own contests. Prizes range from $10 million by CBS SportsLine.com for the person that picks a perfect NCAA bracket--a fat chance by some estimates--to $100 at smaller Web site Tripod.

    "Given the popularity of NCAA, it's no surprise that the tournament challenge is our biggest game of the year. We typically set traffic records during the tournament," said Eric Handler, spokesman for Walt Disney's ESPN.com.

    Last year, ESPN.com wanted to award two Final Four tickets for life to its NCAA tournament winner, but it bowed to pressures from the NCAA, which was concerned that the prize's size would equate it with gambling. This year, the sports site is setting aside the association's concerns and giving $10,000 to its office-pool champion.

    ESPN.com has also extended its pool to wireless users, offering a separate prize of $1,000 for those winners.

    A record 2.5 million people will play NCAA tournament office pools online this year, a number that'll grow to 10 million by 2001, according to Michael Sweeney, director of marketing for Wall Street Sports, which runs an Internet contest based on the playoffs.

    In addition, tickets to the Final Four games are selling for up to 10 times their face value on eBay. An 18-year-old freshman at Indiana University has already paid $1,375 for a pair of tickets that sold on eBay earlier this month.

    Message boards on Thursday quickly filled with armchair experts pontificating about players and team strategies. Some revealed their picks, while a few bickered over which universities would make it to the Final Four. But mostly, the fans kept an anxious eye on the score as Kentucky and Holy Cross tipped off the first round Thursday.