All bets are off in NCAA Tournament 2014

Betting on the brackets during March Madness has turned an amateur college sport based on talent and teamwork into an idol of luck. Gambling on the NCAA Tournament may also turn out to be a fun-killer and an illusion of self-control.

AP Photo
The NCAA Division I men's college basketball tournament selection committees gather in the selection room in Indianapolis. Warren Buffett promised a billion dollars for a perfect NCAA bracket during this March Madness.

For three weeks starting every March, a national pastime in America turns to predicting the future. At least 1 in 10 people fills out a bracket card in an attempt to guess the winning teams of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament.

The betting types might also place a “friendly” wager during this March Madness. More money is now bet on the 68-team playoffs than during the Super Bowl. Experts estimate up to $12 billion is bet on a sport that is both amateur and linked to academia. Much of the gambling will take place in office pools, an activity that is illegal in almost every state.

Gambling on March Madness has grown so large that the NCAA issued a warning a few years ago about the potential danger of a game being thrown by point-shaving players on the take. “Sports wagering can be a serious crime that threatens the well-being of student-athletes and the integrity of the game,” the NCAA stated. The NCAA also tried to have betting on college sports banned in Nevada, but failed.

This year, the National Council on Problem Gambling expanded its annual awareness campaign to include the weeks of March Madness. During the games, the number of calls to gambling help lines can shoot up by as much as 80 percent with desperate pleas from people for help in dealing with addictive behavior.

For many young people, filling out an NCAA bracket brings their first introduction to gambling. About 4 to 7 percent of college students are considered problem gamblers, a percentage higher than that of other adults.

What may be most striking about “harmless” wagering during March Madness is that a bettor’s sense of control could be simply an illusion. According to a study last year of gamblers on soccer games, those who follow a sport did no better than those who knew nothing about it.

“Sports gamblers seem to believe themselves the cleverest of all gamblers,” said the study’s researcher, Pinhas Dannon of Tel Aviv University in Israel. “They think that with experience and knowledge – such as players’ statistics, managers’ habits, weather conditions, and stadium capacity – they can predict the outcome of a game better than the average person.”

Along with the illusion of being in control, sports gamblers also may not be having fun. A 2008 report published in the Journal of Consumer Research found people who try to predict an uncertain event by betting on it experience significantly less enjoyment while observing the event. “Once a person has committed to a predicted outcome, he’s set himself up for the possibility of looking like a fool. In other words, the fear of losing [known as anticipated regret] may actually feel worse than losing itself,” said the study’s researchers, Naomi Mandel and Stephen M. Nowlis. “A consumer playing roulette might actually enjoy that gamble more if the ‘house’ rather than the consumer chooses the number to be played.”

Viewing a sport such as men’s (or women’s) NCAA basketball as a betting game may seem quite innocent to many people. Yet those who bet on their brackets must also recognize the potential harm to the sport, to a minority of fellow gamblers, and even to their own enjoyment and sense of self-control. Making an idol of luck in a sport that is based on talent, hard work, and teamwork is the real madness.

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