Into the Pool: NCAA Tourney Betting Booms

So you've filled out your NCAA tournament grid for the office pool. You're watching the games on TV and hoping for a payoff. There's just one catch.

You've probably broken the law, too.

Yes, it's time for that familiar springtime ritual again, as all across America, millions of people — from college basketball diehards to others who don't know if George Mason is a person or a school — take the time to fill out an NCAA tournament bracket, in hopes of making some quick cash and earning bragging rights among friends and co-workers.

But betting pools, however ubiquitous, are not legal. Gambling on college sports is against the law almost everywhere in the United States except for Nevada. (Vermont passed a law last year allowing limited betting on the NCAAs.)

And basketball pools are not limited to offices. Betting on the NCAA tournament is rampant on college campuses and the Web as well.

"It gives me more of a reason to watch the game with interest," says Al, a business student in New York who says he enters a pool almost every year — and asked not to be identified by his full name.

"I see it as relatively harmless endeavor, a chance to make a large profit off a small investment," Al adds. "I have as good a chance of winning as anybody."

It all adds up to a colossal national gambling binge. Indeed, no one knows just how much money is wagered — and perhaps diverted from the economy — on brackets and the 63 games over the three-week tournament period.

"The common thing we hear is that it's in the billions, but it's impossible to know," says NCAA spokeswoman Jane Jankowski.

Almost All Sports Bets Are Off the Books

Most estimates place legal Nevada-based betting on the NCAA tournament in the range of $60 million to $70 million every year — second only to the Super Bowl as a cash bonanza for Las Vegas bookmakers.

But the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, formed by President Clinton, released a 1999 report citing surveys showing that well over 90 percent of all sports betting nationwide takes place off the books.

If accurate, that would push the total wagered on the NCAAs across the country closer to $1 billion.

But cracking down on workplace or collegiate betting pools is not easy. Nor is it high on the priority list of the nation's law enforcement officials.

"Office pools would be a local violation," explains FBI spokeswoman Tracy Silberling. So it usually falls to area police departments to enforce the law.

But even police officers in college basketball hotbeds generally feel they have more pressing matters to attend to than ferreting out NCAA pools.

"People just don't complain about it," says Sgt. Ron Evans of the police department in Durham, N.C., where the nation's top-ranked college team, Duke, is located. "Everybody goes in knowing the result may be they don't win."

A Web of Gambling

There is one expectation this policy, however: Internet-based sports gambling sites. Federal authorities have used a 1961 law making it illegal to use interstate phone lines while placing or accepting a bet to crack down Web sites offering a chance to make wagers.

The first such bust occurred in 1998, when federal authorities in New York arrested 14 people for running a total of six "offshore" Web sites.

The site managers protested they were within the legal boundaries of the countries in which their sites were registered, but law enforcement officials don't buy that rationale.

"It's illegal to take money from a U.S. citizen, I don't care where you are," says Silberling.

Still, gambling Web sites soliciting bets on the NCAA tournament persist.

"March Madness is here!" shouts one site, registered in Antigua and Barbuda. "Win CASH MONEY!"

It all helps feed a massive industry. According to the NGISC, Americans wagered $630 billion in 1998 — and came away $50 billion poorer for their troubles.

And while Congress has discussed legislation banning virtually all gambling on college sports, the big business of betting shows no signs of disappearing in the near future.

"It's a huge problem," acknowledges Silberling.

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