The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is almost here. It’s the biggest event in college hoops, and following the unpredictable 68-team tournament can lead to big costs for hardcore fans. The average fan spends about $211 on March Madness expenses, according to Sara Skirboll, a shopping and trends expert for RetailMeNot, a shopping deals website.
However, there are ways of enjoying March Madness to the fullest without going over your entertainment budget for March (or April). We’ve tried to cover them all here, whether you’re looking to save on tickets so you can see a game or two live, watching at home, showing your team spirit or even putting together a competitive bracket. (Have more ideas? Let us know in the comments.)
1. Shop Around for Deals on Apparel
Looking for your favorite team’s gear? Skirboll said sporting goods retailers often offer discounts leading up to the tournament, sometimes with free shipping. Skirboll also suggested following specific retailers on social media or subscribing to their newsletters for the chance at more deals.
2. Take Advantage of Discounts on Food
For those hosting March Madness viewing parties, you may want to shop around for discounts on refreshments. See if your local pizza joint offers a discount, especially if it’s a big chain, Skirboll said.
3. Make a Party Budget
Your National Championship Party might not be as big of an event as your Super Bowl party was, but you’ll still want to make a realistic budget and stick to it.
4. Limit Your Guest List
This may also help cut down on disputes on whether or not Duke is the worst.
5. Ask People to Bring Food & Drinks
Call it a potluck and you might end up with leftovers for days. That’s a win, even if your team loses. (To help, you may want to check out these tips on how to save on groceries.)
6. Don’t Put All Your Money on Your Bracket
It’s fun to put together a bracket, but you don’t want to blow your budget by putting too much money down. The NCAA reports that the odds of picking a perfect bracket — and this is a lowball — are one in 128 billion.
7. Change Your Cable Plan
CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV are carrying all the games (all of these except CBS are on cable). So you may want to consider one of these six ways to save on your cable bill.
8. Go Old School
CBS is airing the biggest games of the tournament — the Final Four and National Championship — so you can watch them without a cable package. Dennis Restauro, who writes about ditching cable on Grounded Reason, said you can buy an antenna (runs about $20) to get the channel.
9. Cut the Cord
There are several services that let you stream live TV without signing up for cable, many of which don’t have an annual contract. Some even offer free trials so you can sign up just for the tournament, if you time it right.
10. Just Get the Channel You Want
Another way to watch CBS is to get CBS All Access, available on multiple devices. This airs the local CBS affiliate in more than 150 markets, but it does come at a price: $5.99 a month with commercials and $9.99 a month commercial-free.
11. Follow Along With Free Apps
There are countless March Madness apps out there, but we narrowed it down to eight of the most useful apps for following March Madness for free. The NCAA March Madness Live app carries every game live. (Note: You need a cable subscription to watch the games broadcast on networks other than CBS.)
12. Phone a Friend
If you really want to avoid paying to watch games, you can just visit a friend. Make sure to buy them a six-pack or pizza if you plan on mooching off their cable subscription.
13. Visit the Bar
You can also patronize your local sports bar to watch games. The proprietors will look on you more kindly if you actually order food and/or drinks. You should also leave a decent tip if you’ll be hanging out watching hoops all day.
14. Take a Math Professor’s Bracket Advice
Tim Chartier, a professor of mathematics and computer science at Davidson College, in Davidson, North Carolina, leads a sports analytics group that has worked on several projects for fantasy sports websites and conducts analysis for Davidson sports teams. His first tip: Be wary of picking seeds lower than 10 to go far. Very few of these teams win more than four games.
15. Weigh Your Odds
If teams from weaker conferences play tough against out-of-conference teams, Chartier said, it could be a sign they have what it takes to make a run.
16. When Calling an Upset, Pick the Right Seeds
Calling upsets can be the key to winning your office pool. Teams seeded 10, 11 or 12 account for 76% of all upsets, Chartier said. Teams seeded 12th account for 27% of upsets alone.
17. But Pick a High Seed to Win It All
Don’t rock the boat too much when you’re picking a champion. Over the past 15 years, every tournament winner except one has been a 1, 2 or 3 seed, Chartier said. The only exception was Connecticut, seeded 7th.
18. Pay Attention to Strength of Schedule
Don’t just look at winning percentage, Chartier said. To get the edge on your workmates, pick teams that not only win, but win against good teams. Avoid teams that lose against weak teams, even if it was close.
19. Pick Teams on Good Runs
Also look at recent performances, Chartier said. A team with momentum can usually carry it into the tournament.
20. See Who Can String Wins Together
See which teams have gone on big winning streaks, Chartier said. After all, winning the tournament is simply a matter of going on a six-game winning streak.
21. Pick Road Warriors
A team’s road record is also important, Chartier said. “March Madness is one long stretch of away games,” he said. “How does a team do winning on the road?”
22. Location, Location, Location
Nate Rattner, an analyst for ticket search engine SeatGeek, said location plays a big role in prices. Tickets for games where teams are close to home and fans don’t have to travel far will likely be the priciest, Rattner said. For example, if the Kansas Jayhawks end up playing at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, expect those tickets to be more expensive. Conversely, if they’re scheduled for a game at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., prices might be lower.
23. Bigger Isn’t Always Better
Tickets at Madison Square Garden are always expensive, no matter who you’re coming to see. But “cities like Memphis and Kansas City have smaller populations and will require more outside fans to make the trip in, which could make tickets more affordable,” Rattner said.
24. Watch the Hot Teams at Home
Certain teams could drive up ticket prices. As of press time, Northwestern has a shot at making the tournament for the first time in Wildcats history. If Selection Sunday is kind to Northwestern, expect prices for their games to pop, Rattner said. “With an extremely excited (and often wealthy) alumni base, wherever Northwestern is drawn, their fans will follow.”
25. Try to Be Patient
Every time a team gets knocked out, a big chunk of their fan base stops wanting tickets, so if you can hold out, it may pay off. “Of course, waiting longer increases the likelihood that the perfect seat may no longer be available,” Rattner said.
26. Buy Full-Strip Tickets
These get you access to every game at a given location and can be a good value. However, ticket prices for later games can drop, so make sure to do the math to see whether they’re worth it, Rattner said.
27. Traveling to See Games? Use the Right Card
Check to see if your credit card offers rewards for travel or hotel stays. If not, there’s still time to get one if you feel this is the right move for you. (Here are a few of our favorite travel rewards credit cards you might compare to get you started.) Just make sure you take a look at your credit scores before you apply.
28. Look for Hotel Deals
Make sure to search online (including social media) for coupon codes or promo offers, especially tied to March Madness. You may also be able to get deals through clubs you belong to or other loyalty programs. And if you can’t find any…
29. … Give Them a Call
Sometimes talking with a representative on the phone can get you a better rate than booking online. (Want more ideas for saving on a hotel stay? Check out these new Marriott Hotels you can visit in 2017 for free.)
30. Get a Package Deal
You also might score a discount if you book your hotel as a bundle with your plane tickets and/or car rental. You may even ask if they have any March Madness specials.
31. Ditch the Fees
A baggage fee here or a resort fee there may not seem like much, but they add up. You can read this guide on tips to help you avoid outrageous travel fees.
32. Share the Expense
If a bunch of you are headed to the games together, you probably don’t each need your own accommodations. After all, you’re there to watch basketball, not sit around in the room. Splitting the cost can really help you save (and maybe even splurge on an extra round of wings).
33. Pick Cinderellas That Steal
Correctly picking a Cinderella — an unheralded team that goes far — can turn your bracket into a moneymaker. One of the things to look for is whether a prospective Cinderella can force turnovers, Chartier said. If a team can do that, even against a stronger opponent, it’s a big swing, because it robs the other team of a possession and usually creates a high-quality scoring chance on the other end.
34. Pick Teams That Defend the 3-Point Line …
A good Cinderella also concedes few three-pointers, Chartier said. Obviously, threes are worth more than twos, and a team that’s forced to take only two-pointers will generally be less efficient.
35. … & Teams That Shoot Lots of 3s
On the same note, a Cinderella candidate should also shoot a lot of threes, Chartier said. “By taking a larger proportion of threes, underdogs give themselves a chance to outscore a more talented favorite,” he said. “Keep in mind, they’ll need to have a good night.”
36. Pay Attention to Matchups
Also see who your potential Cinderella is playing. If the bracket lines them up against a team with a bad defense, that creates upset potential, Chartier said.
37. Pick Teams That Feast on Freebies
A team that doesn’t shoot free throws well could also be ripe for an upset, Chartier said. “If you are shooting a low percentage of free throws, you aren’t making as many points per possession,” he said.
38. Pick Teams That Swat Shots
Pay attention to shot blocking. Teams that give up clean looks at the basket are often fall prey to Cinderellas.
39. Earn Millions for Your Bracket
Finally, if you really believe in your bracket, consider applying for a job at Berkshire Hathaway. CEO Warren Buffett told CNBC that his company would give $1 million a year for life to any employee who guesses which teams will play in the Sweet 16. Time to brush off that resume.