It’s college basketball’s high season, which means bracket pools and betting along with the buzzer beaters. For the National Collegiate Athletic Association, there’s no better time to warn about the dangers of gambling.
About $12 billion is projected by oddsmakers to be wagered over the next three weeks on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which tips off its full schedule today with 16 games.
“This is really the one time of year where everyone is talking about gambling,” Rachel Newman Baker, the NCAA’s director of rules on agents, gambling and amateurism, said in a telephone interview. “As much as we’ve tried to educate our membership, it’s just something that people don’t talk about on a day-to-day basis. This actually gives us an opportunity to provide that education and talk about the issues and concerns.”
West Virginia University plays Clemson University in today’s first game, which starts at 12:15 p.m. local time in Tampa, Florida. Every game in the tournament, which is nicknamed “March Madness” on the NCAA website, will be televised live this year by CBS Corp. and Turner Broadcasting’s TBS, TNT and truTV.
“Not only is there more overall action than the Super Bowl, but the game days are like Woodstock for action junkies,” RJ Bell, president of Las Vegas-based handicapping information website Pregame.com, said. “There are games from morning to night and the next day it all starts over again.”
While fans pore over their picks during the first two rounds of the tournament, Baker and other NCAA officials will visit with Las Vegas oddsmakers and sports book operators, gathering information on the volume of wagering and movement of betting lines. They’ll then travel to regional sites to meet with players, coaches, trainers, student managers and other team personnel about sports betting.
NCAA rules prohibiting gambling on sports events extend to players, administrators and all members of a school’s athletic department.
“It’s a good opportunity to hit that whole traveling party at once,” Baker said. “Mostly our focus is on the sharing of information because a lot of time that gets missed. At this point in the game, historically it’s not that a point-shaving incident happens right at the tournament.”
College basketball’s biggest betting scandals have involved so-called point shaving, where players alter the victory margin against the gambling line set by bookmakers.
One involved 35 players from schools including the University of Kentucky and Long Island University who were accused of fixing 86 games between 1947 and 1951. Those cases involved illegal bookies.
The NCAA will use former players affected by gambling and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in its presentations to teams during the tournament.
The officials will warn players about seemingly innocuous scenarios, with Baker giving the example of a student manager who receives text messages from a friend inquiring about injuries in hopes of gaining insight for bets. At fan events during the men’s and women’s Final Four, the NCAA will have interactive gambling information booths as part of a program called, “Don’t Bet on It.”
While office pools have become synonymous with the tournament -- even U.S. President Barack Obama fills out a bracket of his projected winners -- Baker said those aren’t a significant concern for the NCAA.
“We’re really focused on a much bigger fish than that,” Baker said. “We’re aware of bracket pools that can get in the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. When you get in that kind of money, you really get concerned about the student-athletes’ potentially being approached to affect the outcome of a game, as well as the game itself.”
Of the estimated $12 billion that will be wagered on the NCAA tournament, about $3 billion is from office pools and approximately $100 million will be bet legally at Nevada’s 183 sports books, according to Pregame’s Bell.
“We’ll probably do as much money as we do on Super Bowl Sunday and the ticket count is way up from Thursday to Sunday because people bet smaller, but just about every game,” Jimmy Vaccaro, director of sports operations at Lucky’s Race and Sports Book in Las Vegas, said in a phone interview.
Ohio State Favored
Ohio State enters the men’s tournament as the favorite among oddsmakers, with a 14.3 percent chance of winning its first championship in 51 years.
Duke University has a 13 percent chance of successfully defending its title, followed by the University of Kansas at 12.8 percent and University of Pittsburgh at 8.7 percent, according to Bell, who uses tournament odds to figure percentages.
Obama picked Kansas to defeat Ohio State for the title.
Ohio State, Duke, Kansas and Pittsburgh are the No. 1 seeds in the four geographic regions. The best championship odds outside the four top teams are No. 2 seeds San Diego State (4.2 percent) and North Carolina (4 percent), while Texas, which is seeded fourth in the West region, is at 3.4 percent.
“Tighten them up, the ride is going to be wild,” CBS college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg said. “There’s no clear-cut favorite. There are a number of teams that are starting to come on and there are some teams outside the power conferences that have talent and experience.”