Three years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic canceled March Madness and delayed the launch of legal sportsbooks in Illinois, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is tipping off this week with more bettors than ever.
From resurgent office pools to online sports betting, 68 million Americans — 1 in 4 adults — are expected to wager a record $15.5 billion as the 68-team field is winnowed to one, according to the American Gaming Association.
Last year, March Madness generated about $3 billion in wagers.
“It’s exponentially bigger,” said Casey Clark, senior vice president of the American Gaming Association. “Not only are people returning to the brackets, but they’re also adding things like a bet on a mobile sports app or going to a sportsbook that’s now legal in their marketplace.”
The $15.5 billion March Madness betting projection, which is based on a survey of 2,200 adults, includes brackets, legal sportsbooks, friendly wagers and illegal bets through bookies, according to the AGA. Illinois, one of the leading sports betting states, could account for a significant chunk of that total.
The tournament opens with four play-in games before the first round begins Thursday. The expansive field includes everyone from the defending champion Kansas Jayhawks to newcomers such as the Kennesaw State Owls.
Illinois and Northwestern earned berths in the tournament as well, which could boost March Madness interest — and betting — in Illinois.
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Legal sports betting continues to grow in the state, hitting a record $1.07 billion in total wagers during January, according to data released Tuesday by the Illinois Gaming Board. That bodes well for February, where Super Bowl bets will be included, and March, where the Big Dance usually tops the Big Game in total handle.
Last year, Illinois sports bettors legally wagered a record $278.4 million during the men’s basketball tournament, according to the Gaming Board.
Most of the action for March Madness, however, still comes through old school brackets, such as the typical office pool.
The cheer squad takes the floor before the Illinois Fighting Illini play the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center, March 9, 2023. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)
Winning a bracket contest requires handicapping every game in the tournament, which can be challenging when a Cinderella team knocks off a favorite — so-called bracket busters. The pandemic may have been the biggest bracket buster of all.
March Madness office pools were drained during the pandemic as remote workers, for the most part, weren’t there to place their bets. With Chicago offices back to about 50% of pre-pandemic occupancy levels, according to the latest weekly study by Kastle Systems, a critical mass of employees are once again available to participate in March Madness office pools.
This year, more than 56 million people — the vast majority of March Madness bettors — plan to participate in a bracket contest, according to Clark.
“Bracket engagement alone is up more than 54% from last year,” Clark said.
With sports betting now legal in 36 states, including Illinois, wagering on March Madness through a retail or online sportsbook is also growing rapidly. Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, a California-based research and consulting firm, projects $2.59 billion in legal March Madness sports bets this year.
Illinois is projected to rank fourth with $244 million wagered during March Madness, or about 9.4% of the total legal sports betting handle, according to Eilers & Krejcik.
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Nevada sportsbooks are expected to generate $362 million in March Madness betting, followed by New York at $343 million. Ohio, which just launched sports betting in January, is projected to surpass Illinois with $277 million in March Madness wagers.
“Since the market is so new, you have a really aggressive promotional environment in Ohio,” said Chris Grove, a Chicago-based partner with Eilers & Krejcik. “Operators are just kind of flooding the market with promotional dollars, and that skews the revenue.”
In 2019, the last pre-pandemic March Madness tournament, sports betting was only legal in a handful of states. Illinois launched sports betting at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines in March 2020, just days before it was shut down and the March Madness tournament was canceled by the pandemic.
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Last year, more than $9.7 billion was legally wagered on sports in Illinois, up from about $7 billion the previous year, according to data from the Illinois Gaming Board. About 96% of the sports bets were placed online.
The state’s nine sportsbooks generated $795 million in adjusted gross revenue in 2022 — the money kept after winnings are paid out — a 51% year-over-year increase, according to the AGA. New York led all states with nearly $1.4 billion in sports betting revenue last year.
January’s record $1.07 billion sports betting handle translates to $96 million in adjusted gross revenue for the sportsbooks and $14.4 million in tax revenue for the state, according to the Illinois Gaming Board.
While the state is projected to place fourth in March Madness betting this year, a good showing by Illinois and Northwestern, which is making only its second NCAA tournament appearance, could boost the state’s handle, according to Grove.
“That could help the market do a little better,” Grove said. “But it’s not going to be one of those things that moves the needle double digits.”
Last year, a tweak to the state’s 2019 sports wagering act allowed Illinois bettors to wager on in-state college teams during the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time, but only in person at four Illinois sportsbooks. The two Illinois entrants in the 68-team field didn’t last long, with Illinois losing to Houston in the second round, and Loyola making a first-round exit at the hands of Ohio State.
The Illinois college betting provision is set to expire July 1.
Illinois and Northwestern play their first games in the West Region on Thursday.