Americans to bet $8.5 billion on 2019 March Madness

By Megan Cerullo

/ MoneyWatch

Nearly 50 million Americans will wager a collective $8.5 billion on the NCAA men's basketball tournament better known as March Madness, according to the American Gaming Association (AGA). This year's tournament — in which 68 college teams will compete for the national title — will be the first championship to take place since the Supreme Court in May overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a 1992 federal law that effectively outlawed sports betting in almost every state.

Is the office pool legal?

Eight states have since made sports betting legal, with some 20 more considering legalization. Even so, this year's expected total comes up shy of 2018's total March Madness betting of $10 billion.

And illegal activity persists, and a large chunk of this year's wagers will be placed illegally. More than 40 million people will bet an estimated $4.6 billion on 149 million brackets — diagrams that track the outcome of matches in the single-elimination tournament — in office and online pools and among friends. Sports books don't offer betting on brackets — meaning they're almost always illegal.

"We are not the fun police — we're not interested in intervening in someone's office manager pool, but in 37 out of 50 states, even that type of operation, where office workers collect money and there's a payout at the end, would be deemed illegal," AGA President and CEO Bill Miller told CBS MoneyWatch. Some companies skirt the issue by running cashless pools that allow employees to earn bragging rights — rather than collect money.

68 teams gearing up for the 2019 NCAA Tournament

Significant illegal activity anticipated

Another 18 million people will wager $3.9 billion at a sports book, online, or with a bookie or a friend, including 5.2 million who'll place bets at illegal offshore sites and 2.4 million people who'll use bookmakers to place illegal bets. Around 4.1 million Americans are expected to take the legal route and bet through a casino sports book or mobile app, according to the AGA.

Sports betting remains wildly popular among sports enthusiasts and nonfans alike. Indeed, twice as many Americans are expected to place bets on the college hoops tournament than on the Super Bowl last month. And they'll wager approximately 40 percent more money than they did on the National Football League championship, Miller said.

Last year, 97 percent of the estimated $10 billion wagered on March Madness was bet illegally, according to the AGA. Just 3 percent of that was bet through sports books in Nevada — the only state in which sports betting was legal then.

More states allow betting this year

It's not clear exactly how much of this year's activity is illegal — many bettors don't know they're breaking the law. "I don't think that when you're filling out your bracket and sending a check to someone who's running a March Madness pool — whether it's your cousin, office manager or a group of friends — I don't think people have any belief that it's illegal," Miller said.

He doesn't think legal activity in more states will take away Nevada's grip on bettors. "The pie gets enlarged. It doesn't necessarily get chopped up," he said. "The amount of offshore illegal activity will decline, and more of the illegal market will move to the legal market than from the Nevada market to the state market."

This year's March Madness betting survey, conducted for the AGA by Morning Consult, polled more than 11,000 adults between March 1 and March 7.

First published on March 18, 2019 / 5:40 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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