March 14, 2017
By David Purdum
Americans are expected to complete 70 million NCAA tournament brackets this year, risking on average $29 per bracket and contributing to the $10.4 billion that will be bet overall on March Madness, according to estimates released Monday by the American Gaming Association.
The $10.4 billion expected to be bet on the tournament includes popular office pools and is up 13 percent from last year's tournament, the AGA says. Only a small fraction of the money bet on the tournament, around 3 percent, is believed to be wagered legally in the United States. The bulk of the remaining $10.1 billion is placed with offshore sportsbooks and local bookmakers, according to the AGA, which represents the U.S. casino industry.
For perspective, $10.1 billion is reportedly the price of 92 Boeing 737 jetliners.
While gambling on the tournament grows, the NCAA remains opposed to all forms of sports betting -- legal and otherwise -- and believes it has the potential to undermine the integrity of the games and negatively impact the welfare of student-athletes. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has come out in support of legalizing betting on professional sports and believes a federal framework of regulations would best protect the integrity of the games. Commissioners for Major League Baseball, the PGA and MLS also have publicly said they are open to sports betting.
"Generally, if the office pool charges a fee for entering the pool and awards prizes to the winner(s), then there is a serious question as to its legality. Some states exempt small pools from their gambling laws and regulations," said Washington, D.C.-based attorney Steven Eichorn of Ifrah Law. "However, the issue of enforcement is an entirely different matter. Law enforcement are assuredly aware that NCAA tournament pools exist, but they have typically turned a blind eye towards it. As a practical matter, law enforcement tends to be more interested in enterprises that organize gambling on a commercial basis, not small interoffice pools."
The AGA's figures on how many brackets will be filled out come from a poll conducted by Gfk Custom Research North America.
To predict overall betting numbers, the AGA took a conservative estimate of illegal sports betting, based on the 1999 National Gambling Impact Study Commission's Final Report, and extrapolated using the current gross domestic product (GDP) as reported by the Census Bureau. The AGA also considered the amount wagered on the NCAA tournament at Nevada's regulated sportsbooks. The data is hard to verify, with the vast majority of the betting taking place in an unregulated environment.
Sports betting is currently legal in only a handful of states, with Nevada the only state permitted to offer single-game wagering, the most popular form.
The Nevada Gaming Control Board does not track the amount bet on the NCAA tournament separately, and combines the NBA and college basketball into one "basketball" category on its monthly revenue reports. The spike in action from March Madness is easy to see, though.
A record $422 million was bet on basketball last March at Nevada sportsbooks. That's more than double the amount wagered on basketball in either January or February. The books won $21.5 million on basketball last March, making it the second-most lucrative basketball month ever.
The AGA, which has multiple Las Vegas sports betting companies as members, estimates that $295 million will be bet on the NCAA tournament at Nevada's sportsbooks this year. By comparison, a record $138.4 million was bet on Super Bowl LI in Nevada. According to multiple Las Vegas sportsbook directors, the most common size of a bet on the NCAA tournament ranges from $20 to $50.