Almost 50 million Americans wagered an estimated $8.5 billion on the last men’s NCAA Tournament. The same number of American adults will do so again this year, according to new data from the American Gaming Association (AGA), but in very different ways.
As legal sports betting spreads across the country, how people are wagering on the Big Dance is changing significantly. Online and brick-and-mortar sportsbooks are now stealing the show, so much so that traditional Tournament betting (moneyline bets, point spreads, over/unders, etc.) is expected to more than double this year, according to the AGA.
“While the number of people, by our estimation, that we’re expecting to place bets on March Madness is flat with 2019, it still suggests that we’re going back to a pre-pandemic America and that Americans are excited about the return of sports, and their ability to legally bet on them,” AGA CEO Bill Miller said in a phone interview. “Previously, the only way [fans] could bet on sports was with a local bookie, or with an offshore illegal website.”
The 2019 March Madness was the first to take place since U.S. sports betting became legalized outside of Las Vegas. Eight states had some form of betting option at the time, but in the two years since, 65.4 million more Americans have gained the ability to bet in legal markets.
As of Thursday’s Tournament tip-off, 25 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized sports betting; 21 of those markets are operational, including Michigan and Virginia, which added 18 million new sports bettors to the online betting market in January.
As Max Bichsel, vice president of U.S. business at Gambling.com, says, “This alone will have an exponential impact on the numbers.”
With more legal options, 30.6 million Americans are expected to place traditional bets on this year’s tournament, 12.8 million more than in 2019. Almost 18 million will place a bet online (up 206%), and more than 8 million people will place a bet at a physical sportsbook, a 79% boost.
A Gambling.com-commissioned survey supports the staggering expectations, finding that “millions of new bettors” planned to wager on the 2021 Tournament. According to the website’s data, states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania are home to hundreds of thousands of first time March Madness bettors. Some 9% of New Jersey adults (625,000) plan to bet on March Madness for the first time, as do 609,000 Pennsylvania adults (6%).
Meanwhile, bracket betting for the 2021 Tournament is expected to go down by 8% from 2019. The AGA’s Miller attributes part of that to fewer in-office pools, with many workers still remote due to COVID, but also to the increased number of legal betting options and the unique college basketball season this year’s March Madness will cap.
Duke, Kentucky and Louisville all missed the cut this year, each with dedicated national fan bases and blue blood history. A couple of lesser-known basketball powerhouses—Gonzaga, Baylor—instead sit atop the West and South regions after a season with dozens of ups and downs and COVID interruptions across the board.
“It’s one thing when North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Villanova are crowded into the top five, but when you’ve got schools who are newer to those top seeds, it’s certainly plausible that there’s an impact,” Miller said. “Filling out brackets is a lot harder when you have all of these schools that either you haven’t heard of, or you haven’t heard much of, or you don’t have much historical association with.”
Regardless of the reason behind the declining interest in brackets, the AGA boss is still optimistic about the increases elsewhere. “We continue to see evidence that consumers are moving away from the illegal market, to the legal, safe, regulated market, especially when it comes to March Madness,” he said.