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Just How Big is March Madness for the US Legal Sports Betting Industry?

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Just How Big is March Madness for the US Legal Sports Betting Industry?
The George Mason Patriots and the La Salle Explorers . Patrick Smith/Getty Images/AFP

The US legal sports betting scene is gearing up for what is expected to be one of its busiest wagering periods in history with March Madness ready to lift off. Following on the heels of the biggest single game in US wagering history, the 2021 NCAA Basketball Tournament is expected to trump the Super Bowl‘s betting popularity en route to becoming the most bet-on tournament ever.

“The 2021 NCAA Tournament will be the most widely bet-on sporting event in U.S. history,” said Eric Ramsey, analyst for PlayUSA.com. “The popularity of the NCAA Tournament combined with such a high number of games typically makes March Madness the largest sports betting holiday each year in terms of handle, and there is no reason to suspect that won’t be the case this year.”

After missing out on a year of March Madness, college basketball fans and sportsbooks are eager to tip off this year’s tournament. Filled with intrigue, upsets and Cinderella-stories, March Madness is one of the most anticipated sporting events on the calendar for sportsbooks, avid NCAA fans and casual observers alike.

March Madness Is Like No Other

March Madness is like no other tournament on the planet. It brings together 68 teams to battle for one Championship over about a 3-week span. Viewership for the tournament is generally off the charts with up to 20 million people expected to watch the final game and ad-buys on the networks expected to eclipse $1 billion.

“The Super Bowl draws the most bets for a single game, but March Madness and its 60+ games should more than double what the Super Bowl draws,” said Dustin Gouker, lead analyst for PlayUSA.com.

March Madness is a tournament that not only fans look forward too but is also a boon for advertisers, the networks that air company’s ads and the kids that hope to parlay a good tournament into a lucrative pro basketball career.

American Gaming Association Projections

Let’s start with the not-so-good. The AGA expects fewer Americans to fill out brackets for the NCAA’s college basketball tournament this year and the reasons for this are simple. Coronavirus has put a damper on socialization and office water-cooler talk that bracketology was built off of. Overall, the AGA expects about 8% less brackets to be filled out compared to 2019 or about 36.7 million. 2021 ends a period of exponential growth for the bracketology phenomenon.

That said, the AGA expects that fans will get their March Madness betting fix through actual bets on the games. An estimated 47 million bettors are expected to place wagers throughout the tournament – 30.6 million will place traditional wagers, up 17.8 million from 2019. With nearly half of Americans eligible to place legal wagers, that number could easily swell.

The AGA report found 17.8 million people will place a bet online, up 206% from 5.8 million in 2019. And 8.3 million will place a bet at a physical sportsbook, up 79% from 2019.

“…the dramatic expansion of legal markets, as well as the exponential growth within each market, means more people will have an opportunity to bet on the NCAA Tournament than ever before. And that will produce an eye-popping handle number that could reach $1.5 billion.” said Dustin Gouker.

Why This Year’s Tournament Will Be Different

The cancellation of the 2020 NCAA men’s basketball tournament was a blow to not only fans of basketball but also sportsbooks that rely on the 3-week betting boon that comes along with the action. After a year away, March Madness likely won’t be taken for granted ever again as players put it all on the line looking for a coveted pro contract and fans hang on every moment of action.

“I think it’s going to be very heavily bet,” said Joe Asher, CEO of William Hill US. “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. 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.”

Back in 2019, the last time the tournament was held, there were only seven states that boasted a legal sports betting scene. That number has nearly tripled in two years, to 20 states including Washington, DC. That means a whole lot more legal gambling, a whole lot more revenue for sportsbooks around the country, and ultimately more tax revenue for tapped out state and local coffers.

“The sports betting landscape has changed dramatically since 2019 – and as a result, tournament betting has transformed,” said Bill Miller, AGA President, and CEO. “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.”

Existential Threat

A major storyline for this year’s Tournament is the existential threat of COVID-19. Things, as we have seen in the past, can turn on a dime. There have been exposures already amongst NCAA teams and questions are mounting about those teams’ presence in March Madness.

The NCAA Basketball Championship will have a different look and feel in 2021 – no fans perhaps being the biggest. But the Madness will March on and fans of college hoops will be typically loyal.

It all amounts to perhaps the biggest tournament ever and for the 2021 Tournament to create a new standard for future Tournaments to chase. It all kicks off Thursday – we will see you there!