March Madness: One-year absence doesn’t dim interest in the college basketball tournament

March 15, 2021 11:52 AM
  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports
March 15, 2021 11:52 AM
  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports

A year ago, the madness was muted.

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In 2019, following Virginia’s overtime win against Texas Tech at the Final Four in Minneapolis, fans – and sports bettors – couldn’t envision waiting some two years for another NCAA College Basketball Championship Tournament.

But that’s what happened after the 2020 March Madness was canceled when the coronavirus pandemic began its spread across the U.S.

With the 2021 brackets announced Sunday and the NCAA Tournament bubble in place in Indiana, the widely popular championship playoff tips off this week after its year-long absence.

Meanwhile, the legal sports betting landscape has changed dramatically.

Research conducted by the gaming industry’s leading trade organization predicts some 47 million Americans will wager on the tournament over the next three weeks.

The number of Americans placing a bet on the tournament hasn’t changed much in two years. How they wager has drastically shifted.

There are now 20 states and Washington D.C. where sports betting is legal – 13 more than in 2019 – giving 65.4 million more Americans the opportunity to wager with either a retail sportsbook or online.

The Washington D.C.-based American Gaming Association said research firm Morning Consult found that almost 31 million Americans will place a traditional wager on the tournament, nearly double the number of bettors since 2019. Some 18 million will place a bet online, a 206% increase, while 8.3 million will wager at a retail sportsbook, up 79% from 2019.

Almost 37 million Americans will fill out a tournament bracket, which is down 8% from 2019.

“As consumers formerly limited to bracket contests now enjoy access to legal sportsbook options, they also plan to place traditional sports bets as March Madness returns,” AGA CEO Bill Miller said in a statement Sunday. “With more legal, regulated sports betting options than ever before, millions of customers now have safer ways to enjoy all the fun and suspense only March Madness provides.”

Legal sports betting, the AGA said, is one reason that 42% of those questioned said they followed college basketball more closely. Of that group, 70% said their attention grew either somewhat or significantly due to the availability of legal sports betting.

The findings somewhat mirror a research report on the U.S. sports betting market by analysts from Southern California-based Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. Principal analyst Chris Grove said the firm estimated $15.9 billion could be wagered legally on the NCAA Basketball Tournament – if sports betting was legal in all 50 states.

“March Madness is a singular event on the sports betting calendar, a sprawling 67-game slate played over a compact 19-day period and serves as one of three tent pole customer acquisition periods for U.S. sports betting operators,” Grove wrote. The other two events are the NFL’s regular season and the Super Bowl.

William Hill US CEO Joe Asher told The Associated Press he expected heavy wagering action on the tournament.

“Just look at how much betting is up as a general matter, and layer on top of that the fact that we didn’t have it last year,” Asher said. “There’s unquestionably a lot of pent-up demand. In many ways, it’s a signal that America is coming back. Beyond the sports betting aspect, it flows into the whole COVID recovery story.”

The Eilers & Krejcik analysts predicted the Midwestern gaming market’s high concentration of college basketball fans in Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois is where “online sports betting operators are likely to see the most action.”

Indiana, where the March Madness tournament will take place in and around Indianapolis, “is likely to see particularly high levels of betting activity,” Grove said.

Some 17% of those participating in the AGA’s survey favored Gonzaga to win the tournament. Florida State was the second choice with 11%, followed by Baylor at 8%.

Five states – Washington, South Dakota, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Maryland – have legalized sports betting but have yet to approve the regulations for operating the activity. The AGA said 17 states, including heavily populated Texas and California, currently have active or pre-filed legislation to legalize sports betting. In New York, lawmakers are considering legislation to expand that state’s sports betting to include online wagering activities.

Eilers & Krejcik suggested sports betting will be legal in 33 states by 2023, including populous Ohio and Massachusetts.

Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.