March Madness hasn’t disappointed this month. Upsets and buzzer-beaters in the first two rounds illustrate how thrilling the NCAA Tournament is. For the first time, Massachusetts residents can bet on March Madness games.
And that means lots of money will be wagered.
In fact, PlayMA projects Massachusetts gamblers will bet upwards of $120 million on the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament.
The tremendous interest in college basketball proves how popular the sport is with sports bettors, in Massachusetts and beyond. Unique to Massachusetts and a handful of other states, however, is a restriction that bars residents from betting on in-state colleges unless they’re competing in a tournament, such as March Madness.
Is that restriction necessary? What is its goal? Does it help that goal get reached?
More betting opportunities equals more tax revenue
Those are questions pondered by C.J. Fisher, the co-chair of the gaming department for Fox Rothschild, which specializes in compliance and regulatory matters in the gaming industry.
Tax revenue from Massachusetts sports betting activity could close to $90 million in a fully mature market. That money helps fund state programs and responsible gambling initiatives. If the state allowed betting on in-season, in-state college basketball and other sports, that total would increase. Maybe not drastically, but an increase nonetheless.
Fisher points out that bettors can cross state lines to make bets prohibited in their own jurisdiction. Like Massachusetts, New Jersey prohibits wagering on in-state schools.
“If I’m in Camden, New Jersey, and want to bet on Rutgers, (I can) drive across the bridge to Philadelphia, and place a bet on Rutgers via a Pennsylvania sportsbook,” Fisher told PlayMA.
Recent alleged violations by sports betting operators in Massachusetts illustrate the challenges in regulating college sports betting. All three retail sportsbooks allegedly offered odds and accepted wagers briefly on games involving Merrimack, Boston College and Harvard in February. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has yet to rule on the incidents.
How does Massachusetts compare to other states?
More than 30 states offer legal sports betting, with the majority of them allowing unfettered wagers on collegiate sports, including in-state schools. In Michigan and Ohio, for example, sports fans can wager on any in-state collegiate team during the regular season and in tournament play.
“Massachusetts is not unique,” Fisher said. “(Violations) have occurred in a number of states, including New Jersey. The question is whether states will continue to enact those types of prohibitions, and whether states will continue to maintain those (on the books).”
In 2021, facing pressure from consumers who want to bet on their own college teams, New Jersey tried to remove its ban on in-state college betting, but the referendum failed.
Rationale for college sports betting limitations
Why ban betting on in-state schools like BC or Harvard in Massachusetts? The primary rationale is to protect against point-shaving, bribes and gambling scandals. Since college athletes do not receive direct pay for playing sports, it’s feared that there could be a temptation to cash in by fixing games. The same concern applies to officials.
There has been little precedent for such claims. The last scandal involving NCAA sports and point-shaving was nearly four decades ago. Tulane’s men’s basketball program was convicted of a plot to fix the scores of games in the mid-1980s. In the late 1970s, two members of the Boston College men’s basketball team conspired with mobsters to fix games.
There’s a question as to whether the ban is effective, considering bettors can simply drive across the state line and place bets if they desire. Or worse yet, turn to unregulated offshore sportsbooks for odds on in-state college basketball, football and other events.
Regulators have noted a desire to also protect college students from the temptations of sports gambling. A ban on betting on their own school team may prevent problem gambling. It certainly could curtail underage gambling.
Whether Massachusetts maintains its ban on college sports betting involving in-state schools, March Madness will be available for wagering. It’s popularity is undeniable. That’s because it has massive appeal, says Fisher.
“Most people, even if they don’t care about college basketball, get some exposure to office pools,” Fisher said. “It’s an event that some people have exposure to their whole lives. That type of exposure raises interest in the tournament, (in) the number of games and the spectacle of the tournament, with March Madness in the news for weeks.”