At a packed Red’s Bar on the eve of the first day of March Madness, Bruce Micklus stands on a table and plays auctioneer.
“They’ve got a tremendous shot blocker named…Varnado,” he hollers between bids for Mississippi State, a No. 13 seed in the men’s NCAA college basketball tournament. A few more guys hold up red bid cards. “Going once. Going twice,” says Micklus. “Sold!”
The 10th annual Red’s Bar/Cystic Fibrosis Men’s Basketball Calcutta collected $79,565 in total bids, a record for the event. Louisville, the tournament’s top overall seed, proved to be the fan favorite, fetching $8,000.
“That’s one of those big bets where you’re betting all your chips on one team to go all the way,” says Red’s Bar owner Mike Helean. “It’s kind of a scary proposition, but people love the NCAA tournament and obviously like to gamble a little bit, and it’s the one form of gambling in our state that doesn’t have any limits.”
Here’s how the calcutta works: You (or your group) win money for every game your “purchased” team wins. The amount increases each round. In this year’s tournament, a team that wins its first game earns its owner $627.57. If it wins its second game, the owner receives $1,432.17. If it wins the national championship, the owner pockets $17,902.13.
Montana law allows calcuttas with a permit so long as its proceeds go to charity. Red’s donates at least 10 percent of the pot to regional chapters of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, or more than $100,000 since the event began in 2000. Helean’s two children both have cystic fibrosis.
Helean, Micklus—the owner of Rockin Rudy’s—and a few other Red’s regulars began the calcutta after hearing of a particularly popular one in Shelby. “We said, ‘Well, why don’t we do something like that here?’” Micklus recalls. He’s honed his auctioneer skills every year since.
“This year I really wasn’t certain we’d do all that much, but it turned out to be far and away the best total ever,” Micklus says. “And the best part about it is that even though charity wasn’t the original idea or thought behind putting the calcutta together, after 10 years we’ve given about $115,000 to cystic fibrosis. In spite of ourselves, we’ve turned out to be quite charitable.”