There is no doubt that the three-plus weeks of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is a captivating sporting event. There will be 32 games played over the next two days in a compressed survive-and-advance format that captures the imagination and attention of sports fans in the US.
But what really captures people’s attention? It’s the money have riding on the event.
Tens of millions of Americans will watch more games because they have a few dollars plunked down on a bracket in an office pool. Billions of dollars will be wagered illegally on straight single-game bets, as well.
The NCAA, of course, likes to pretend publicly that people just like watching the games for the games, even though it knows better. (The inanity of the NCAA’s position on all forms of betting was recently in focus when it banned some baseball players for something having to do with fantasy football.)
But really, the tournament is simply tailor-made for sports betting.
The American Gaming Association estimates that 70 million people will fill out brackets based on the tournament this year.
Some of those will be brackets with no entry fee for a pool. But a vast majority of these people will have some sort on monetary interest riding on the outcome. They hold onto hopes of turning a few bucks into hundreds or thousands of dollars.
These kinds of brackets are likely technically illegal, although almost everyone playing in or running a pool is not at risk of criminal action.
And, really, who cares if anyone bets money in an office pool? Bracket pools are largely harmless and are simply fun. They do not have the potential to affect the integrity of the games.
The real problem is the illegal sports betting market.
The AGA also estimates that Americans will wager $10.4 billion on March Madness. Almost all of it will be bet illegally at offshore sportsbooks or with stateside bookies.
Only about $295 million – or three percent — comes from legal Nevada sports betting. (Nevada is the only state where single-game wagers are legal.)
That is a sizable chunk of all money bet on sports in the US annually. The total amount wagered each year by Americans is estimated at $150 billion. The $10 billion figure is double they money that is wagered on the Super Bowl.
As a side note: Could you imagine how much handle a legal nationwide tournament pool would generate? Or even just one in a single state?
Federal law in the United States continues to ignore the fact that the prohibition on sports betting — via PASPA — is largely ineffectual.
If people want to bet on games, they can so easily, despite the legality. Law enforcement officials are constantly chasing their tails trying to shut down illegal sportsbooks that pop up as fast as they can be shut down. Major gambling websites have served the US sports betting market for years, and will continue to do so.
“The federal ban on sports betting is an utter failure – depriving states of vital tax revenues and preventing millions of fans from wagering legally on games,” Geoff Freeman, AGA president and CEO, said in a release before March Madness. “It’s time for Washington to get out of the way and enable states to reap the rewards of a regulated sports betting marketplace.”
The sports betting ban served a different era, before gambling on the internet was widespread and easy to do.
Michelle Minton from a think tank called the Competitive Enterprise Institute summed up what PASPA has done, quite neatly:
What it has done is prevent states like New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware from regulating the activity, enacting consumer protections, and collecting the potential millions of dollars in tax revenue from licensed bookmakers.
A growing number of sports leagues in the US also agree that the ban is ineffectual. Some commissioners argue that regulation is probably best for everyone: Leagues, gamblers and law enforcement.
Someday, perhaps, everyone will simply admit that Americans love betting on sports. We’ll stop pretending that it’s not happening, and find ways to capture revenue going elsewhere and regulate the gambling to help ensure the integrity of games.
Until then, the US will continue to keep its head in the sand on sports betting.
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