The End of March Madness: Duke’s departure means no sure bets in 2019

Over $300 million was legally wagered on the NCAA I men’s basketball tournament last year — all in the state of Nevada (Las Vegas). Guess how much was bet illegally?

The Madness of March will likely see the “legal” amount wagered on the tournament skyrocket this year since the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) last May which essentially banned sport wagering in all but the state of Nevada where Las Vegas rules the roost. President George W. Bush, once the owner of the Texas Rangers, signed the law prohibiting sport betting in 1992 which has stood the test of time for over a quarter of a century.

In 2019, Sports betting is legal in the District of Columbia and eight additional states — Arkansas, Delaware, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia. In 2020, legal sport wagering should be available in over half of the United States and according to Joni Comstock, Director of Championships at the NCAA, it will likely be legal to wager on March Madness in well over 30 states by 2021. Basically, legalizing sport betting only represents a cosmetic shift in the portion of the estimated $150 billion Americans illegally gamble on sports annually into a few hundred million legal wagers.

The NCAA and professional leagues are concerned about what gambling means to the integrity of sport competition, although many of the pro leagues are already capitalizing by creating lucrative partnership deals with gaming companies. There is a legitimate concern that a ripe 18-20 year-old college player may be tempted to intentionally miss a crucial foul shot down the stretch to make sure a team covers the spread at the request of a bookie who is willing to grease their palm with cold hard cash. The University of Toledo was the target of a point shaving scandal a short decade ago. Hoopsters at Boston College, San Diego State University, Arizona State University, Tulane University, and at four institutions in New York have also been scarred by point shaving scandals. While the NCAA routinely imposes stiff penalties for point shaving, there are likely similar incidents that go undetected.

The NCAA has a long history of being opposed to legal sport wagering. The organization was supported by the late John McCain in 2001 in a futile attempt to end legal sport betting in Nevada. In 2012, the NCAA pulled six championships from the state of New Jersey citing a policy prohibiting championships from being played in a state that supported sport gambling. New Jersey had just announced their plans to legalize sport betting prompting the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL to join the NCAA in filing an injunction in 2014 to block any court from deciding in favor of the case. The case finally made it to the Supreme Court last year and now, the NCAA has no choice but to modify many of their policies in the wake of the controversial law banning sport wagering being overturned and New Jersey becoming one of the first states to take advantage of the freedom to become a major player in the legal sport gambling market.

Legal sport wagering, primarily through online sport betting platforms, is popular in Canada, Australia, and in many countries throughout Africa, South America, western Europe, and parts of Asia. Laws vary greatly from country to country, but in England, there are more legal sport betting parlor locations on street corners than there are Dominos pizza stores in America. The United States, however, is a relatively late entrant into the worldwide legal sport betting marketplace.

The complexity of the current hybrid nature (legal vs. illegal) of sport gambling throughout the U.S. will only increase as more states jump on the bandwagon and pass their own version of gambling laws which widely vary from state to state. For example, someone driving in New Jersey was easily able to use their mobile phone to access an online betting site and legally wager on the winner of a sweet sixteen game last month, but as soon as they drove through the Holland Tunnel into New York, GPS recognition kicked in and the app crashed. Similarly, someone in New York was able to legally bet on the outcome of a game involving Rutgers or Princeton or Seton Hall University this past season, but as soon as that individual crossed over into New Jersey territory, odds on all those teams suddenly disappeared since N.J. state laws prohibit wagers on university teams within the state.

The biggest annual sport gambling event is the World Cup. The international federation for soccer (FIFA) and Sportrader, a global data-distribution and technology company based in Switzerland, estimated $155 billion (USD) was bet on the 2018 men’s World Cup tournament in Russia. The state-run sport lottery in China accounted for almost $7 billion (USD) in legal bets which was four-times what the country wagered on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the first time sport gambling was permitted across the country.

Incidentally, the prize money for the 2018 FIFA men’s World Cup tournament in Russia was $400 million (USD) while the pay-out for this year’s women’s tournament in France is only $30 million. It’s no wonder the U.S. women’s soccer team filed a federal gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. soccer seeking equal pay to their men’s counterpart. Setting a precedence within the United States is a small step, comparatively. Disparity in the pay-outs for the NCAA basketball tournaments are similar with conferences receiving almost $2 million for each unit earned by qualifying men’s teams compared to approximately $25,000 per unit for qualifying women’s teams.

March Madness and the World Cup are phenomenal sporting events providing billions of betting opportunities for odds makers from the number of dunks and technical fouls to how many ejections there are in a soccer playoff game. Gambling on whether Tiger will sink a putt or how many cars will crash in the first two minutes of the Indianapolis 500 are two other types of interesting wagers that demonstrate the heightened fan experience when legal, live sport betting is available.

Time will tell if sport teams will start employing gaming or betting analysts. The NBA is already leading the way by creating a position at the league headquarters. In the meantime, expect published data to be available very soon indicating the total dollar amount generated from legal betting on the 2019 Big Dance, especially since the odd’s favorite (Duke and Zion Williamson) took an early departure (unlike the New England Patriots who were a pretty sure bet in the Super Bowl).

Stay tuned for next month’s column featuring more interesting sport stories from around the world, around the nation, around the state, and right here in Tiffin, Ohio.

Bonnie Tiell is a professor of sports management at Tiffin University.