Swapping Brackets for Bets: How Legal Sports Betting is Shifting March Madness Tournament Betting

After 2020 stripped the country of its beloved March Madness tournament, the highly-anticipated basketball showdown is back in full swing this year…and so is sports betting.

Over 47 million Americans are expected to wager on March Madness this year, many of whom are swapping out their usual brackets for up-down bets and online betting. According to Front Office Sports, online betting will more than triple to 17.8 million this year from 5.8 million in 2019. While the overall number of Americans betting remains about the same as 2019, the surge from online and physical, brick-and-mortar sportsbook betting compensates for the lower expected participation in bracket contests.

This sports betting boom demonstrates a significant shift in how people are choosing to wager on games this year. In March of 2019, only eight markets had launched legal sports betting in the United States. Today, there are 21 (with several more states on the cusp of introducing legal sportsbooks). The legalization of sports betting in nearly half of the U.S (including Washington D.C) has significantly increased the availability of betting opportunities to the public; since the 2019 tournament, over 65 million more Americans have gained the opportunity to bet safely in legal markets in 13 new jurisdictions.

“The sports betting landscape has changed dramatically,” said American Gambling Association CEO and President, Bill Miller. “And as a result, tournament betting has transformed. 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.”

The legalization of sports betting and its increased availability have significantly impacted sports fandom and involvement. According to research conducted by the American Gambling Association, 42% of fans said that they followed college basketball more closely this season, with 70% of those individuals attributing their increased attention somewhat or significantly to the growing availability of sports betting. This form of gambling introduces a new thrill to each game that increases both sports consumption and audience enjoyment.

“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,” said Miller.

This years’ tournament is only foreshadowing the long-term growth of sports betting. As more markets launch throughout the United States, the potential handle the U.S can expect from the 68-team postseason tournament grows exponentially. According to estimates from research and consulting firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, the legalization of sports betting across all 50 states would allow the March Madness tournament to generate $15.9 billion annually in legal wagers, with $1.2 billion collected in revenue.

There is clearly a lot of pent-up demand for sports betting, considering the widely popular championship playoff did not take place last year. However these projections demonstrate that this demand will not be a singular occurrence; sports betting is well positioned to create a lasting–and potentially permanent–shift in the market that will become a major new source of revenue for leagues and teams. This is especially true for March Madness, which takes place at a downtime for the sports world. The appetite for the college spectacle therefore is heightened by the fact that it owns the month of March and does not compete with other sports for audience attention. Many say these factors position the 2021 March Madness tournament to become the most bet-on tournament in sports history, exceeding the Super Bowl.

The long-term impacts and implications of legalized sports betting are yet to be seen.

For now, though, the return of the March Madness tournament and sports betting are an optimistic signal that America–and the sports world–are finally recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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