Whether you religiously watch college basketball or pick teams based on the school mascots, you’re likely coughing up a few dollars to fill out a March Madness bracket at some point this week.
NCAA brackets are hard to avoid. It seems like every bar, every office, and every circle of friends partakes in an NCAA tournament pool. Even though the money involved is usually short — with a bracket entry costing somewhere in the $5-$20 range — estimates put the amount wagered on March Madness brackets at around $3 billion.
And in most cases, these bracket pools constitute illegal gambling. At least for the time being.
SCOTUS to rule on sports betting case
The combined sports and gaming worlds are on pins and needles waiting for the Supreme Court of the United States to render a decision in Murphy (nee Christie) vs. The NCAA, a case that could pave the way for legal sports betting across the United States.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of New Jersey, states can determine their own sports betting destiny. This raises the question:
What does that mean for the yearly NCAA bracket pool I fill out?
The short answer is: regardless of how the SCOTUS rules, don’t expect anything to change.
The full answer is a bit more nuanced.
Are bracket pools really illegal?
In a press release highlighting the amount of money wagered illegally on the NCAA tournament, Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the AGA, said:
“Our current sports betting laws are so out of touch with reality that we’re turning tens of millions of Americans into criminals for the simple act of enjoying college basketball.”
That’s a bit of an overstatement. Actually, at least 13 states seem to have exemptions for casual pool betting. It’s not too far off from the truth though.
“A legal analysis commissioned by the AGA, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group representing the casino industry, found that real-money sports pools, including NCAA tournament bracket pools, are “generally illegal” in 37 of 50 states.”
The good news is, even if your office pool does violate your state’s gambling laws, you don’t have to worry about going to jail for filling out a bracket. The chances of being prosecuted for participating in a typical NCAA tournament pool are close to zero.
“I would say that the chance of prosecution would be the same as being struck by lightning,” Joseph M. Kelly, a business law professor at Buffalo State College told Law360 in March 2016.
“If it is just an office pool, where the winner takes all, in theory you are violating the law in about half the states, but in practice you are not going to be prosecuted,” Kelly said. “I just can’t imagine a prosecutor taking time to go after a casual player.”
Would the SCOTUS decision extend to pools?
If the SCOTUS decision opens the door for states to legalize sports betting, the authorization of pool betting would likely find its way into legislation.
That would potentially allow licensed sportsbooks or online operators to run NCAA pools alongside traditional sports wagers.
It will be interesting to see is if any of the state-level laws try to strengthen prohibitions on unlicensed pool betting.
It’s somewhat unlikely a state would, given the pervasiveness of this type of casual betting. It’s even more of a long shot that those laws would be enforced, but it’s not out of the question.
If a state decides to authorize pool betting, there would almost certainly be language that prohibited pool betting by unlicensed entities.
Alternatively, a state exploring sports betting legislation could use the opportunity to rewrite some of its existing gambling laws. These states could carve out small-money casual pool betting, as some 13 states have already done.
But as noted above, the most likely outcome is that nothing changes.