The same week he selected his nominee for the Supreme Court, President Obama filled out his March Madness bracket in a nationally broadcast event that has become an annual White House tradition over the last eight years.
The President’s bracket is just one of 70 million that were completed by more than 40 million Americans this year, and the number of brackets completed is more than the number of votes that will likely be cast for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or any other presidential candidate in November.
If the Super Bowl was any indication of the President’s affinity for betting on sports – he told late night host Stephen Colbert that he bets on the Big Game – then he likely stands in good company by putting a few bucks down on March Madness. With an estimated $9.2 billion wagered on the NCAA tournament, including on the Final Four and championship game in Houston tonight, it stands as the biggest betting event of the year – twice the size of the Super Bowl.
Yet just like betting on the Big Game, on professional basketball and on baseball and on hockey and on pick-your-sport, nearly all of this activity is happening illegally. On March Madness, 97 percent of bets are made in the illegal market.
What’s abundantly clear is how popular betting on sports has become. What’s also clear is that America’s prohibition, which pushes fans to engage in what’s technically illicit activity, is failing.
Officially, federal law largely bans sports betting outside of Nevada and three other states. Unofficially, a thriving illegal gambling market operates outside the reach of law enforcement, with no regulatory oversight, no consumer protection and no consideration for the integrity of games. And unlike legal gambling, no federal, state or local taxes are collected.
Despite this prohibition, Americans placed an estimated $150 billion in illegal bets on sports last year. Two possible remedies exist: dramatically increase law enforcement resources to crack down on illegal gambling, or adopt a new approach that would bring sports betting out of the shadows and into robust regulation, full transparency and real-time monitoring of wagering activity.
Fans are already saying it’s time for a new approach. A recent survey by leading public opinion researcher Mark Mellman found that 80 percent of NFL fans want to change current law. Further, a change in law would boost sports leagues and the media companies that pay billions for the rights to broadcast games. Seventy percent of fans are more likely to watch a game if they’ve wagered on it; nearly two-in-three say they follow teams more closely if they’ve placed a bet. That Cleveland Browns-Jacksonville Jaguars contest suddenly becomes a lot more riveting.
The current sports betting prohibition was enacted before Peyton Manning graduated from high school, before the first President Bush exited the White House and before casinos expanded from a handful of states to more than 40 today. Times have changed, and so have American attitudes towards sports betting in particular and gambling in general.
Perhaps most significant is that professional sports leagues are taking a different approach. The most prominent example is NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has repeatedly called for a regulated framework to bring sports betting out of the shadows and to protect the integrity of games. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred suggests it’s time to discuss the sport’s position on betting, “given that the country has changed in terms of its approach to legalized gambling.”
The NFL recently made a big investment in a sports monitoring company that provides data to sportsbooks, a sign that the league is preparing for legalized sports betting nationwide, and Commissioner Roger Goodell said he wouldn’t block a team moving to Las Vegas, a city that had been previously shunned. Even the NCAA is reconsidering its ban on holding championship events in Las Vegas.
Some critics suggest that sports betting could harm the integrity of the games. In truth, the greatest threat to today’s games is a thriving unregulated black market, where no one knows if the fix is in.
The gaming industry is aligned – from Nevada casinos to regional operators – and the American Gaming Association is building a coalition of sports leagues, law enforcement and other stakeholders to discuss the right regulatory structure.
After all, as the longtime sports broadcaster Brent Musburger said recently about sports betting, “Get your head out of the sand. It’s just part of American life.”