Legal gambling in March Madness generates $2.7 billion – and a lot of abuse for players

<span>Tristen Newton’s UConn is among the betting favorites in the men’s NCAA tournament.  </span><span>Photo: Brad Penner/USA Today Sports</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 796d2907″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 2907″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Tristen Newton’s UConn is among the betting favorites in the men’s NCAA tournament. Photo: Brad Penner/USA Today Sports

March Madness is notoriously fickle, but as the tournament gets underway, one prediction seems safe: It will involve more money than ever before. But higher stakes come with greater risks, and threats and abuse directed at student-athletes are on the rise.

Americans will legally wager an estimate $2.72 billion at this year’s March Madness events for men and women, according to the American Gaming Association, a trade group. That’s just a small part of the likely total, with many more billions expected to be spent through unlicensed channels such as bracket pools.

The college basketball tournament is the biggest annual sports betting bonanza in the US and is expected to generate double the amount legally wagered on this year’s Super Bowl.

Sports gambling, which was essentially illegal outside Nevada until 2018, is now allowed in 38 US states and Washington DC. As the legal industry embraces mobile technology and partners with major leagues and media companies, the legal industry has grown at an astonishing rate, handling $120 billion in bets in 2023 (up 28% from the previous year) and $11 billion dollars in revenues were recorded (an increase of 45%). ), even though it remains banned in the two most populous states, California and Texas.

Legal sports betting launched in the college basketball hotbed of North Carolina just in time for the start of March Madness, which concludes for the men with the championship game in Glendale, Arizona, on April 8, with the women’s final in Cleveland a day earlier. .

While the risks of addiction associated with legalized betting are well documented, gambling can also place additional, unwanted pressure on players and coaches. Within days of the introduction of legal sports betting in Ohio last January, University of Dayton head basketball coach Anthony Grant berated gamblers for harassing his players online after they lost bets.

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“There have been some laws passed recently that, to me, could really change the landscape of what college sports are about,” he told reporters. “And when we have people making it about themselves and attacking children for their own agenda, it sickens me.”

The NCAA, college sports’ main governing body, is concerned. “Recent data indicate that approximately one in three high-profile athletes receives abusive messages from someone with a gambling interest,” NCAA President Charlie Baker wrote in a letter to campus leaders this month. “Data also shows that 90% of that harassment is generated online or through social media, while the remaining 10% occurs in person, and some comes from other students on campus.”

Officials, coaches and other athletics-related workers are also targets, he added. An NCAA spokesperson said higher profile events tend to generate a higher number of abuses — and nothing in college sports is more prominent than March Madness.

“Our students are under a lot of pressure and stress and athletes are under tremendous pressure and this just adds another layer. People can contact you directly and fill your direct messages with hate, it’s a whole new world,” said Jason W. Osborne, a professor at Miami University in Ohio and a member of the university’s Institute for Responsible Gaming. “We as institutions have to do much more to try to protect. I think many institutions are working very hard to get ahead of this, but it is a very dynamic environment.”

Universities and the NCAA invest in education, support and research around the problems gambling poses. But gamblers seem less likely to keep their emotions in check now that sports betting is no longer an underground activity. “This harassing behavior appears to have increased as a result of legalization and normalization,” said Amanda Blackford, director of operations and responsible gambling at the Ohio Casino Control Commission.

Ohio is home to a number of sporting powerhouses and is already one of the top betting markets in the US. Last year, more than $7.6 billion was legally wagered on sports in the state, almost all of it via mobile and other online devices, translating into approximately $135 million in tax revenue collected by the state.

Ohio acted quickly in response to the kind of harassment highlighted by Grant, passing a law in 2023 that would make it easier to stop gamblers who threaten athletes from placing bets in the state. Despite resistance from some gaming operators, it last month agreed to the NCAA’s request to ban “prop” bets on the individual performance of college athletes, such as how many points a basketball player might score in a game. Maryland and Vermont also recently banned prop bets on college players.

Attempts by gambling giants to penetrate universities through sports sponsorship stalled after a setback. Yet gambling has quickly become ingrained in campus culture. A 2023 NCAA survey found that two-thirds of 18- to 22-year-olds living on campus are “gamblers,” 41% have wagered on their school’s teams, and that problem gambling is widespread, with “16% betting on has at least been involved in gambling.” one risky behavior and 6% report that they have previously lost more than $500 in one day on sports betting.” Young people are particularly vulnerable to developing a gambling problem because their decision-making skills are not yet fully developed.

A bill that would require Maryland universities to use geofencing technology to block online gambling on campuses is currently being considered in the state legislature. “We think it’s a big deal,” said Pam Queen, a state representative sponsoring the bill. She is also a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “There is a lot of gambling going on, online gambling is generating more interest among a younger generation,” she adds. “These are not students going to a casino, but doing things on their phones.”

Such widespread participation increases the burden on student-athletes. “At the college level, you take classes with your peers who bet on you,” Blackford says. She cites the example of a student who sent a request for money to a friend who had played a bad match, “saying, ‘You cost me this bet, you now owe me’.”

News clips that a player reveals to a classmate are potentially very valuable. “As an athlete you can just casually say, ‘oh, my friend is on injured reserve.’ Because that’s just part of your life,” says Osborne. “But now in a gaming environment that can be insider knowledge. That could skew the odds. If you have that information you can have an advantage and that can get people into trouble.”

More than a dozen people at Iowa State and Iowa universities were criminally charged last year with illegally placing bets, even if they were minors, on games in which they played. The NCAA penalized former University of Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon last month for providing inside information about an injured starting pitcher via text message to a gambler who then allegedly tried to place a $100,000 bet on an Alabama game , but this was limited to $15,000. .

That suspicious attempt was flagged by US Integrity, a Nevada-based monitoring company that works with numerous leagues, gambling operators and regulators. It also reported unusual moves in the point spread related to a Temple University basketball game earlier this month, which is the basis of an ongoing investigation. Also this month, Loyola University Maryland said it had removed an individual from its basketball program for a “gambling violation.”

“The most vulnerable sports are always one-on-one: tennis, MMA, boxing,” said Matt Holt, president and founder of US Integrity. But basketball requires relatively few players compared to other team sports such as football, soccer and baseball, and its high-scoring nature makes it particularly susceptible to point shaving. “As far as team sports go, I think especially in North America, basketball, college and pro are the most vulnerable,” Holt said. “If you get the starting point guard and the main scorer, you can almost guarantee they can get the result for you.”

However, Holt believes that college athletes’ ability to monetize their name, image and likeness since 2021 reduces the temptation to fix matches. “Now that we have collegiate athletes literally making seven figures, I think that gap exists [with the professional ranks] has shrunk considerably. We are no longer talking about guys who can barely afford to buy a pizza on the weekend,” he says.

The inevitable shock results, the overflowing passions and the sheer number of fans betting on March Madness are a recipe for a flood of gamblers venting their frustrations. Holt argues that the importance of the tournament at least mitigates the risk of match-fixing: too many people are paying too much attention. “They’re usually regular-season games where there’s less attention and they think they’re more likely to get away with it,” he said.

“It’s harder to convince someone to underperform in a March Madness game when this has been their hopes and dreams all their lives and now they’re standing on the big stage with the opportunity to do something historic. It’s much easier to convince them to rig a regular season game with a much smaller impact.”

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