Sports betting is soaring despite the pandemic — and not just because of March Madness. Here’s why

Kaheel Alhark has yet to fill out his March Madness bracket, but he already knows how much he wants to wager over the course of the tournament: $500 — at least. 

“They’ve got a good center and a good point guard,” Alhark says of #1-seeded Illinois, his pick to win the championship. “To me, that’s victory right there.” 

Sitting in the sportsbook of the Peppermill casino in Reno, Alhark is among the throngs of fans — and bettors — eager for the return of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, after it was canceled last year amid the pandemonium of the pandemic’s initial outbreak. 

But while COVID-19 has all but shuttered arenas from fans, it has only accelerated the growth of the legal sports betting industry. 

“I’m betting probably more, because I got more time to sit and think,” Alhark says with a laugh.

He isn’t alone. Legal sports betting in the U.S. saw a record year in 2020, with casinos generating an all-time high of $1.5 billion in revenue from their sportsbooks, according to the American Gaming Association. 

And if the AGA’s bullish forecast for wagers on this year’s March Madness is any indication, sports betting is poised to play a crucial role in helping the casino industry rebound from the pandemic, which dealt the industry its first market contraction since 2003. 

“You’re going to see probably the most bet-upon sporting event maybe in the history of legal sports betting in the United States,” AGA spokesman Casey Clark said in an interview with the Sierra Nevada Ally. “And that is in spite of the fact that a lot of the casual betting that takes place amongst friends or brackets or things like that are going to be probably less than you would have seen normally because of the restrictions that people have because of the pandemic.” 

A national survey conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of the AGA predicts that in-person sportsbook wagering on the tournament will rise by 79 percent compared to 2019’s March Madness, and online wagering — a fan favorite amid the era of lockdown — will triple. 

Once the near-exclusive offering of Nevada, legal sports betting has proliferated across the country ever since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 struck down a federal law which all but banned the activity. Now exactly half of all states and Washington, D.C. have legalized it, with more expected to come. 

This rapid growth has come as a welcome surprise to many industry analysts, including Drake University gaming law professor Keith Miller. 

“I don’t think that many people other than the most optimistic saw the reaction of people to the opportunities to bet on sports,” Miller told the Ally. “In states where there was the anticipation that there might be a few hundred million dollars bet on sports, you’re seeing two and three times that much money. It is still a developing, emerging market in our country that I think clearly is only going to get larger.”

It’s not just fans and bettors themselves who are eager to see sportsbooks and online wagering come to their state; it’s also the states themselves, as legislatures eye new revenue sources to help compensate for steep budget deficits exacerbated by the pandemic. 

“[State governments] are looking for additional ways to bring revenue into the state, and sports betting and ‘iGaming,’ or online casinos, are increasingly being seen as a piece of the overall puzzle,” said former Nevada Gaming Control Board chairwoman Becky Harris in an interview with the Ally. 

Harris pointed to Maryland as a state on the cusp of legalization, motivated in part by a desire to raise new tax revenue. 

So too is Connecticut for similar reasons, Harris said, although that state is limiting its efforts to tribal casinos and not commercial enterprises. 

But it’s not just fiscal benefits that are goading state lawmakers into action; so too is consumer protection. In Wyoming, Harris said, a recently passed sports betting bill was drafted primarily to give residents a safe and legal option, protecting them from offshore and predatory sports betting markets. 

Said Clark, on behalf of the AGA: “From our standpoint, the real value is less about how much revenue is being directed to sports betting and how much is really being diverted away from the predatory and pervasive illegal markets that people have been stuck with for a long time.” 

Benjamin Payne is a freelance reporter and recent master’s graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism. Support his work in the Ally.

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