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Larger than Life: March Madness Bigger than the Super Bowl

The Super Bowl may be the most-watched sporting event in America, but March Madness attracts twice as much money in wagers.

Most people worldwide probably consider the Super Bowl to be the biggest sporting event in America. The media furor and pageantry surrounding the game is unmatched and as a cultural phenomenon, Super Bowl Sunday is right up there with Christmas and Thanksgiving. That is the way it should be, as American football is the most popular spectator sport in a country obsessed with spectator sports.

But when it comes to betting, the National Collegiate Basketball Association (NCAA) tournament (“March Madness”) dwarfs all challengers. The three-week long basketball bonanza features 67 single elimination games played in cities across America, bringing in spectators and bettors from all walks of life. In any given year, twice as much money is wagered on March Madness than on the Super Bowl.

The data

Betting executives call March the “undisputed biggest betting month of the year” for good reason. In 2011 $12 billion were wagered worldwide on March Madness. This doubled the $6 billion bet on the Super Bowl. To be sure, the tournament features 67 games. But most money is wagered on the day prior to the beginning of play, when bettors fill out their complete brackets.

Due to restrictive American gambling laws, Nevada is the only state in which providers can legally accept basketball wagers. Of the whopping $12 billion, only $100 million of it was bet there. It is estimated that roughly $3 billion was wagered in informal “office pools” across America, with the remaining roughly $9 billion being placed with foreign bookmakers not licensed in the country. Thus, the $100 million bet with bookies licensed in America is only 3.3% of what is wagered illegally in informal pools.

Forbes predicts that roughly 100 million people worldwide (roughly 40 million of which are American) will place wagers on March Madness 2014. If we expect the total wager to stay static at $12 billion, the average bettor will put down $120. A relatively modest amount, but the beauty of the event is that pulls in people across age, gender and national lines. Even people who have never watched a basketball game in their lives regularly join office pools.

Why the appeal?

When it comes to betting, what makes March Madness bigger than the Super Bowl? One reason is the nature of the betting itself. Most bets involve filling out a complete bracket on “Selection Sunday,” on which day the qualifying teams are announced. So all predictions are made prior to the start of the tournament and cannot be adjusted. Bettors live and die by their initial predictions, making Selection Sunday especially thrilling.

• $12 billion were wagered on March Madness in 2011, twice as much as the Super Bowl

• Las Vegas bookmakers took only 3.3 percent of domestic wagers in the US, which the rest being wagered in informal “office pools”

• Roughly 100 million people worldwide bet on March Madness

Choose wisely (or luckily) and you have a chance at winning. Make a few poor selections, and your entire bracket could collapse during the opening rounds of play. Single-event and prop bets also make up part of the March Madness betting market, but there is no doubt that complete brackets are the centerpiece.

In addition, many people are attracted to the fact that the athletes are amateur, not professional. There is a general perception that the game is unspoiled; the players are motivated by love of the game and desire for the championship, not higher salaries (this perception is completely naïve, but that’s a different story). It is a way for many to relive their college days; watching and betting on their alma mater has major nostalgia appeal.

Basketball is universal

Another crucial reason for the popularity of March Madness is that basketball has a universality that American football could never hope to match. American football is the most popular spectator sport in the country, but much of that comes from the fact that games are played almost exclusively on Sundays. Most people are relaxing at home anyway, so why not put a game on?

Basketball enjoys more participants than any other sport in America. Most people have at least a passive interest in it, and with the popular culture surrounding March Madness, filling out a bracket and placing a small wager are completely natural. One needn’t be a basketball fan or serious gambler.

Biggest suppliers of wagers

As we’ve shown, Vegas only takes in a tiny percentage of the total amount wagered on March Madness, and most Americans bet in office pools rather than licensed sportsbooks. So who is betting on March Madness, and where are they placing legal bets? Of the 100 million people who place bets each year, only 40 million of them are American.

Some of the most popular international sportsbooks for March Madness are Bet365 and Bodog, neither of which accept bets from the US. Most of their received wagers come from Europe, Canada, Africa and especially Asia. Basketball has gained massive popularity in China over the previous two decades, helped in part by the success of Yao Ming and Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin. While professional basketball is the game of choice for most Asian bettors, many now place wagers on March Madness.

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