The most important annual statistical moment in America: the start of March Madness

When do statistics matter the most for the average American? The week of the opening weekend of March Madness – the period between the revealing of the 68 team field to the final games of the Round of 32 – may just be that point. All the numbers are hard to resist; win-loss records, various other metrics of team performance (strength of schedule, RPI, systems attached to particular analysts, advanced basketball statistics, etc.), comparing seed numbers and their historic performance, seeing who the rest of America has picked (see the percentages for the millions of brackets at ESPN), and betting lines and pools.

Considering the suggestions that Americans are fairly innumerate, perhaps this would be a good period for public statistics education. How does one sift through all these numbers, thinking about how they are measured and making decisions based on the figures? Sadly, I usually teach Statistics in the fall so I can’t put any of my own ideas into practice…

Quicken Loans’ $1 billion bracket challenge set to find more mortgage customers

Your odds of winning $1 billion from Quicken Loans for having a perfect NCAA bracket are really low – and the company will get great free data on potential mortgage customers.

To register for the contest, you have to sign up for a Yahoo account—a boon in itself for Yahoo, on whose site the contest is run. Then you’re asked to enter your name, address, email, birthday, and the answers to several questions about your home mortgage situation. All of this information goes to Quicken Loans, the fourth-largest mortgage-lender in the U.S.

It’s no coincidence that this information—where do you live? Do you want to buy a home? What’s your current mortgage rate?—is exactly what you need if you want to sell someone a home loan…

It’s not uncommon for companies like Quicken to pay between $50 and $300 for a single high-quality mortgage lead, Lykken says.

Quicken says the info-gathering is not intended for lead generation. Instead, the company says it’s building a base of relationships with people who may want home loans in the future. “The people that are playing the Billion Dollar Bracket kind of fit our demographic,” says Jay Farner, Quicken’s president and marketing chief. “But for the most part, unless they’ve opted in and said ‘please call me,’ it’s not a mortgage lead for us.”

This is the magic of the Internet for companies: users are willing to trade their information for some good. On Facebook, it is a trade of ongoing personal information for social interaction. In this bracket challenge, it is the trade of personal information for the chance to win both (1) $1 billion and (2) the ultimate bragging rights of having a completely correct bracket when millions of others couldn’t do it. Instead of having to make broad appeals to all consumers, companies can instead target specific consumers.

The argument in this article is that the particular trade here is not good for the average player: with the odds at “a 1 in 8,500 chance that anyone wins,” it is not worth giving up personal information. But, this is the sort of calculation that all Internet users must make all the time with all sorts of sites. Do I want to give up information about my music tastes to Spotify if they can use that to sell me targeted ads? What happens when Amazon gets information about hundreds of products I like? What if Google can see all of my searches? These trade-offs are harder to calculate and to avoid making them, the average user won’t be able to do much online.