Office Pool

Is Your Office Bracket Pool Legal?

This is one of my favorite days of the year.  In addition to the green beer that is flowing, sports fans (and non-sports fans) get to spend an inordinate amount of time completing NCAA basketball tournament brackets in hopes of besting their friends, colleagues and often complete strangers.  The range of bracket pools varies nearly as much as the participants, from high-stakes pools involving fanatics with big money on the line, to office pools competing purely for bragging rights.

It seems like everyone completes a bracket.  But have you ever wondered if your bracket pool is legal?

According to this article on Forbes.com, free-to-enter pools are generally legal, but pay-to-enter pools are not.  As the article details, pay-to-enter pools may run afoul of at least three federal laws, and may be illegal in some states.  What about Wisconsin?

The answer comes down to whether your bracket entry is a “bet” and your pool is a “lottery.”

By statute, anyone who “makes a bet” is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor.[1]  Wis. Stat. § 945.01(1) defines a “bet” as “a bargain in which the parties agree that, dependent upon chance even though accompanied by some skill, one stands to win or lose something of value specified in the agreement.”  There are several exceptions from this definition (actual business transactions, prizes to actual competitors, etc.), unfortunately, they do not appear to exclude bracket pools.  Thus, the ability to win or lose “something of value” determines whether your bracket entry is a “bet.”  If you can win or lose money, it is a bet.  If it is for office bragging rights, it may not be (a very lawyerly answer, I know).

“A lottery is an enterprise wherein for a consideration the participants are given an opportunity to win a prize, the award of which is determined by chance, even though accompanied by some skill.”  Wis. Stat. § 945.01(5)(a).[2]  There is at least a strong argument that success in bracket pools is determined by chance.  (Do you think Warren Buffet would be putting $1 Billion if the odds for winning were better than 1 in 9 quintillion?  How many times has your friend who picked based on uniform colors won?)  Similar to the “bet” discussion above, if money is required to enter the bracket pool, and if the winner receives a prize (usually money), the bracket pool is a lottery.

Now what about those trusted friends or colleagues who take time from their busy schedules to run your bracket pool?  These pool administrators may be engaging in “commercial gambling” and guilty of a Class I felony[3] if they do any of the following:

  • For gain, operating a bracket pool;
  • For gain, becoming a custodian (holding) of entry fees or records;
  • For gain, setting up an online pool; or
  • Conducting a lottery where the entry and prize is money.

As you would suspect with laws regulating gambling, it appears that money is the principal issue in determining whether your bracket pool is illegal gambling.

Thus, while money makes many things more exciting, if you are going to engage in a bracket pool, it may be better to put the checkbook away and stick to bragging rights.


[1] The maximum penalty for a Class B misdemeanor is $1,000 and 90 days imprisonment.

[2] As an aside, a lottery does not include bingo or certain raffle contests.  Good job Lutheran churches!

[3] The maximum penalty for a Class I felony is $10,000 and 3 years and 6 months imprisonment. Yikes!