This Year's March Madness Is the Biggest Legal Sports Betting Event in American History

Even the famously stodgy NCAA is changing its views on gambling. For the first time, games will be played in a state where sports betting is legal.


In the two years that have passed since the last college basketball national champion was crowned, more than a dozen additional states have legalized betting on sporting events—which means this year's March Madness will be the largest legal gambling event in American history.

That's not just good news for anyone who wants to make the madness a little more interesting, but likely will help ensure that the games themselves are free from the influence of black-market betting.

Roughly 74 million more Americans will be free to wager on the outcome of March Madness this year than in 2019, according to the American Gaming Association, an industry group. Sports betting is now legal in 25 states and Washington, D.C.

After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled last year's tournament, sportsbooks are betting there will be an unprecedented amount of action in the next few weeks. Dustin Gouker, head of content for PlayUSA, tells MarketWatch that the expansion of legal gambling over the past few years means as much as $1.5 billion could be bet on this year's National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament. For comparison's sake, this year's Super Bowl saw about $500 million in legal sports betting.

The market for legal sports betting has exploded since May 2018 when the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that effectively banned gambling on sporting events outside of Nevada and a few other places that were grandfathered into a 1992 federal ban. That ban, by the way, is likely responsible for the huge popularity of March Madness "bracket pool" games that allow contestants to bet on the outcome of all 63 NCAA tournament games by filling out their own versions of the tournament bracket. Because that doesn't involve betting on the outcome of one specific game, those wagers weren't subject to the federal ban.

But now that Americans can bet on games (without taking a special trip to Las Vegas), lots of them are doing it. A Morning Consult poll commissioned by the AGA found that an estimated 30.6 million Americans will place traditional bets on games in this year's tournament, up from 17.8 million in 2019.

The popularity of sports betting is even forcing the infamously stodgy NCAA to change with the times. As of 2019, the association was still refusing to allow March Madness games to be hosted in states with legal sports betting. This year, the entire tournament is being played in a state, Indiana, where sports betting is legal.

The surge in wagering on the outcome of games does trigger some overblown worries about the potential for corruption. Back when sports betting was more widely illegal, college basketball dealt with a series of scandals involving so-called "point shaving"—usually involving players who were paid to avoid winning by a large enough margin to cover the spread.

Now, bringing sports betting out of the black market means regulators and tournament officials can track betting patterns and more easily identify attempts to influence outcomes. Both the NCAA and Indiana Gaming Commission, ESPN reports, are working with third-party firms to track "irregularities" in the market to prevent corruption.

Legalized sports betting means more freedom and fun for Americans who love March Madness. It means officials can have greater control over the integrity of the games. And it means this might finally be the year you win big—but probably not.