NCAA March Madness Can Cause Lifetime Gambling Problems

"Harmless" brackets may be a gateway to gambling problems.

A detail shot of a basketball during the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship Semifinals at the Ford Center March 13, 2009 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
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Let me begin with this disclaimer: There is no better time than March Madness! As a huge sports fan whose grandfather attended Michigan State University, my obsession with sports in general—and college basketball specifically—was cemented when Earvin "Magic" Johnson led the Spartans to the 1979 NCAA championship over Larry Bird and Indiana State.

My passion for sports and recreation has turned into a career as an assistant professor in the recreation, parks, and leisure services administration department at Central Michigan University. But, at one point in my life, this same passion started me down a dangerous path—sports gambling. I bet on sports as an undergraduate student, and also had family members who ran parlay card and bookmaking operations. I quit betting years ago and instead focused my efforts on educating the public about this potentially dangerous activity.

The NCAA tournament—a three-week, single-elimination competition—not only builds excitement among students and alumni of participating schools and among sports fans at large but also creates a flurry of gambling activity. Statistics from the Nevada Gaming Commission place legal wagering on March Madness at $80 million to $90 million; sports betting is legal in only the states of Nevada, Delaware, and Oregon (the latter two grandfathered into federal legislation in 1992) and is only actively practiced in Nevada.

On the other hand, sports gambling analyst Danny Sheridan estimates that more than $7 billion is illegally wagered via brackets distributed within offices and circles of friends, online betting, and bets with campus or neighborhood bookies. The NCAA, the governing body of all of college sports, estimates that 1 in 10 Americans will complete a tournament bracket.

It is especially important to understand the gambling rates of America's teenagers and young adults. Numerous studies have shown that the number of adolescents addicted to gambling is two to four times the adult rate and 4 to 7 percent of college students meet the criteria for pathological gambling. Research also has shown that the earlier a person begins gambling, the more likely she or he is to develop a gambling problem; the average problem gambler starts wagering around age 10.

My recent study of 14 college student sports gamblers uncovered alarming information:

These students, four of whom were running bookmaking operations, indicated that they were first introduced to wagering on sports by completing an NCAA tournament bracket or buying a Super Bowl square.

  • The students were introduced to gambling as teenagers, either by classmates in junior high or high school or by male family members in the home setting.
    • The young gamblers knew their wagers were illegal but chose to participate anyway.
    • These findings suggest that completing an NCAA tournament bracket may serve as a gateway to participation in more expensive and dangerous forms of sports gambling that can hold dire consequences.

      The current generation of college students is extremely intelligent and resourceful. Considering that these students have plenty of disposable time; access to tremendous amounts of information via the Internet and television; and, in many cases, sports-related knowledge and interest due to their participation in high school athletics, sports gambling provides what deceptively appears to be a fun way to make "easy money," particularly considering the 50/50 odds provided by the point spread.

      And the publication of injury reports and point spreads in newspapers and on websites, as well as the online availability of printable brackets, only promotes participation in illegal sports betting among the general population.

      It is important to note that other gambling research indicates that most people who gamble are able to do so responsibly. Still, while betting on the NCAA tournament, legally or illegally, won't automatically cause an addiction, there is a clear continuum of activity that begins with the completion of a tournament bracket—something commonly viewed as harmless. Though some individuals can stop gambling on sports without experiencing negative consequences, others will encounter debt, the loss of relationships, involvement in other illegal activities, and even addiction. The bottom line is that no one ends up with a sports gambling problem without making his or her first bet—and frequently that first wager is filling out an NCAA tournament bracket.

      Tim Otteman, a former gambler, researches the issue at Central Michigan University, where he also teaches.