Wagers are pouring in
The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments return in a few days after being canceled last year only about a week before they were to begin. Nearly everything in the world was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic – and we aren’t in the clear yet – but it was the stoppage of the NBA and college basketball during conference tournament week that really marked the point at which everything changed in the United States. Even though the setup is now different – all the games will be in Indiana in front of limited fans – sportsbooks are thrilled to have the tournaments back, as Americans are expected to plunk down lots of money.
The American Gaming Association (AGA) estimates that 47 million Americans plan to bet on March Madness this year. That’s actually just about the same as it was in 2019, but obviously an infinite increase from last year.
According to the AGA, 36.7 million Americans will fill out tournament brackets, a decrease of 8% from 2019. But that isn’t necessarily because of a lack of enthusiasm, but rather because office pools won’t be as prevalent this year with so many people working from home.
On the flip side, 30.6 million Americans plan on placing “traditional” bets, legally or illegally, a massive leap from 17.8 million 2019. The rapid spread of legalized sports betting in the United States – about half the states now have legal wagering – is the primary reason for the surge.
The AGA’s survey indicates that 17.8 million people will place online bets, while 8.3 million will place bets at a physical sportsbook, increases of 206% and 79% from 2019, respectively.
Gonzaga, Michigan leading the money
As for the participating teams themselves, it should come as no surprise to anyone who follows basketball that undefeated Gonzaga is the heavy favorite to win it all at 9-5 (lines from Caesars). After that comes the other three number one seeds: Michigan at 9-2, Baylor at 5-1, and Illinois 11-2. The defending champions, my Virginia Cavaliers, are currently 40-1.
Some sportsbooks have told ESPN that they are worried about their exposure to Michigan. William Hill said it took two $30,000 bets on the Wolverines in February. The most money, though, has been bet on Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have attracted 20% of the money at William Hill, but at a worse payout, hence why the book is more concerned about Michigan.
Georgetown has also been a trendy pick, despite being a longshot. The Hoyas, the class of college basketball decades ago, went just 13-12 this year, but made its way into the Big Dance by winning four straight games last week to win the Big East tournament. Adam Pullen, assistant director of trading for William Hill, told ESPN that lots of bettors jumped on Georgetown last week as the team kept winning and its odds to emerge as national champs went from 2,500-1 to 200-1.