As the Final Four approaches, millions of people who’ve placed March Madness bets are dreaming of a windfall—or cursing the five bucks they blew on the office bracket.
How much is bet on the tournament? The NCAA says illegal wagers total more than $2.5 billion a year. The American Gaming Association puts legal and illegal gambling at $9 billion.
It’s not clear where these figures come from or what they’re based on, though. The NCAA credited its number to the FBI—but the agency said it couldn’t confirm it.
Here’s our attempt to sort out just how much cash is on the line.
The best place to start is Nevada, the only state where it’s legal to bet on college sports.
The Nevada Gaming Control Board doesn’t separate college basketball wagers from those placed on pro games, but the board’s senior research analyst Michael Lawton estimates the tournament accounts for 70 percent of legal basketball bets in March.
But what about illegal bets on the millions of brackets people fill out online and at work? That’s where things get real murky, real fast. Warning: Extreme back-of-envelope calculations ahead.
Since the basketball tournament has a far smaller worldwide audience than the Super Bowl, Bell says a greater proportion of wagers on the games are placed legally through Vegas. He suggests cutting that $25 billion illegal bets estimate in half, to $12.5 billion.
Bracket betting accounts for only about $2 billion of that total, says Bell, citing a 2015 estimate by the American Gaming Association. The rest—about $10 billion—is from illegal Vegas-style bets.
The most popular bets, he says, are on point spreads, over-unders, props, futures, and parlays.
Obviously, this is the roughest of rough estimates—and one that should make you highly skeptical of all the other numbers floating around. The fact is, there is no way to come up with a solid figure.
Yet it has little incentive to forcefully discourage it. About 81 percent of the NCAA's annual revenue comes from the March Madness TV contract, and betting adds to the excitement and drives up viewership.
The NCAA’s site even provides blank brackets for fans to print out—though it cautions they should only be used for entertainment purposes, not gambling. “No better feeling than filling out brackets in March!” the NCAA tweeted before the tournament. “Complete yours today!”
Sources: American Gaming Association, FBI, NCAA and RJ Bell