Is March Madness a Sporting Event—or a Gambling Event?

Even the tiniest of office pools threaten the integrity of the game, according to the NCAA. But the organization knows that if it weren't for bracketology, the madness wouldn't be so mad.
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Brennan Linsley / AP

In Robert Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H*  there’s a moment in which George Wood’s General Hammond approaches Roger Bowen’s Colonel Blake with a scheme to make some easy money: a football game between the motor pool and the medical unit. He explains, “We put on a football game, we put up a few bets, five thousand maybe, and have a little fun. Special Services in Tokyo says it’s one the best gimmick we’ve got to keep the American way of life going here in Asia.”

“Betting?” asks the Colonel. 

“No, football,” the General responds.

But perhaps it’s the Colonel who had it right. The American way of life—or, more accurately, the American way of fandom—is at least as much about gambling as it is about sports. Especially around this time of year. Consider the following:

  • Estimates of how much is legally wagered on the tournament—that is, through state-licensed sports books in Delaware, Montana, Oregon and mostly Nevada—range from $90 million to $100 million. According to a recent story in the Dallas Morning News, the tab could be as high as $227 million.
  • Two years ago, the LA Times cited an FBI source that more than $2.5 billion was illegally wagered on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.(Does that illegal gambling include your office brackets? Technically, it could, if you’re not in one of the four states mentioned above. No one, however, has ever been prosecuted for friendly office pools—more on that later.)
  • R.J. Bell, owner of Pregame.com—not a gambling site but one that analyzes betting news and point spreads—estimated that last year $12 billion was bet, worldwide, on March Madness. That’s about $2 billion more than was bet on February’s Super Bowl game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos.

A report last week by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says that 50 million Americans are expected to participate in office pools. They also offer a statistic that you likely won’t find on any sports websites: The cost to American industry will be more than $1.2 billion, based on an average hourly wage of $24.31 and if each worker spends just one hour on their brackets. And last year, Forbes estimated that worldwide, the number of people involved in the pools could be over 100 million. That may or may not include President Obama, who filled out his brackets on ESPN Wednesday, picking the Michigan State Spartans to go all the way, or Vladimir Putin, who reportedly also follows the March tournament, but as we go to press he hasn’t shared his brackets.

The late sports historian Bert Sugar was fond of saying that horse racing was the only sport that existed because of gambling. One has to wonder if, at least in its present form, the same isn’t true of March Madness hoops—an ironic possibility that would likely ruffle NCAA officials, who have historically spent the rest of the year reprimanding people who gamble on college sports.

It's understandable that the NCAA Tournament is such a popular occasion for wagering money; after all, people certainly don’t follow the tournament, at least in the early rounds, because of the suspense. You don’t need 68 teams in a playoff to determine who is the best in the country. The first round is as close to a sure thing as you can find in sports. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 (and 68 after the 2010 season), in 116 tries, a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed. And No. 2 seeds are 110-6 against No. 15 seeds. (In fact, the lowest seed to go all the way in the tourney was No. 8 seed Villanova in 1985. As George Ignatin, former numbers cruncher for the Wall Street Journal’s “By The Numbers” column, says, “After you take the first 5 or 6 seeds, you can throw a blanket over the rest.” Number-one seeds have won 11 of the last 15 championships.)

But, of course, at any other point in the year, college ball has no business mixing with gambling: March Madness and its accompanying betting-pool tradition go directly against the NCAA’s staunch anti-gambling policy. In 2010, the organization released a manifesto on college sports betting, which read, in part, “Sports wagering can be a serious crime that threatens the well-being of student-athletes and the integrity of the game.”

Several times over the last several decades, college basketball has doled out severe punishments for point-shaving (gamblers bribing players to win by fewer points than their team is favored by) and even game-throwing scandals. In 1998, two Northwestern basketball players were discovered to have shaved points during the 1995 season, sending both to prison for a short stint. During the 1978-79 season, four of Boston College’s top players were paid $2500 apiece by gamblers for each game the Eagles failed to cover the point spread; the scheme, engineered in part by Henry Hill of Goodfellas fame, earned one of the players, Rick Kuhn, a 10-year prison sentence for sports racketeering. In 1985 a point-shaving scandal at Tulane involving drugs and money was so widespread that the university president dropped basketball from its program. (Tulane reinstated the sport five years later.)

And the mother of all college basketball gambling scandals took place in the 1950s and involved 32 players at seven schools who accepted bribes from gamblers in games from 1947 through 1950. The schools included two national champions, City College of New York (1950) and Kentucky (1947, 1948, and 1951), and the sport’s most prestigious coach, Adolph “The Baron” Rupp, was embarrassed when the NCAA suspended his Kentucky program for the 1952-53 season. When the rumors first surfaced of a scandal, Rupp had bragged to New York sportswriters that “Gamblers couldn’t touch my boys with a ten-foot pole.” After the truth came out, the writers chipped in and sent Rupp a present—an 11-foot pole.

It was in the wake of the 1950s point-shaving scandal that the NCAA became the dominant power in college sports by vowing to police college athletics and banish gambling. Obviously, that goal is impossible—there are simply too many schools and too much money involved. Publicly, as their 2010 dictum indicates, the NCAA even frowns on the office pool brackets, feeling that it fosters a tolerance for gambling that inevitably results in corruption.

Privately, however, the NCAA likely knows what the rest of us have known for years: that bracketology is exactly what keeps millions of people glued to their screens at home and the office for 19 days in March and April. George Carlin used to do a routine about his parish priest reading announcements during services: “Thursday, a lecture on the evils of gambling. Friday night, bingo.” When March comes around, America becomes like Carlin’s Catholics: We preach a moral taboo against gambling, but for a couple of weeks of the year, we want a dispensation.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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