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College basketball has increasingly become a one month sport. With regular season ratings dwindling to near record lows, according to Sports Media Watch, the league finds itself at a crossroads, wavering between keeping its best players in college and losing them to professional leagues across the globe.
As more elite players opt to bypass college entirely, according to SBNation, the world’s largest sports media company, the league must look to one of the primary draws of its own postseason tournament — fan competition through brackets and other forms of legalized sports betting — to restore viewership levels.
More than 47 million Americans will bet on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, or March Madness, this year, according to the American Gaming Association (AGA). Just two years after sports betting became legal in the U.S., the number of individuals placing bets on the tournament through mediums other than brackets has risen 72 percent, and the number of people placing bets online has risen an astounding 206 percent, according to the AGA.
If such increases are sustained through the regular season, it will likely translate to substantial increases in viewership. More than 70 percent of fans in a 2018 Seton Hall University Sports Poll said they are more likely to watch a game if they are betting on it. Even more striking, 88 percent of those aged 18 to 29 — a desired demographic for many sponsors — said they’d be more likely to watch a game they wagered on.
Despite this, the NCAA remains openly opposed to all forms of legal sports gambling. League officials cite gambling’s potential to undermine the integrity of the sport and jeopardize the well-being of student-athletes as the primary reasons for the position, according to the NCAA’s website.
The NCAA’s stance on sports gambling, however, stands in staunch opposition to their professional counterpart, the National Basketball Association (NBA).
NBA commissioner Adam Silver asserts that legal sports gambling dramatically reduces the risk of corruption, as league officials now have access to betting information — once reserved for underground bookies in illegal gambling rings, according to a 2019 interview with 60 Minutes.
Though there are clear differences between college programs and NBA teams, the substance of Silver’s comments still applies. Acknowledging and embracing sports gambling would allow NCAA officials the opportunity to get ahead of potential scandals and influence a world that has existed illegally for decades under their nose.
In addition to creating a framework for dealing with corruption, legalized sports gambling would curb a much more pervasive problem in the college basketball regular season — lower levels of fan excitement due to the ongoing exodus of marketable stars from the league.
For decades everything from ratings to fan culture was driven by household names at big name programs who would spend multiple years in college basketball. The highest rated game in college basketball history, for example, featured the sport’s arguably two biggest stars in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, according to Sports Media Watch.
Today, it’s extremely rare for players with NBA potential like Bird and Magic to come back to college for a second or third year. Frankly, considering the injury risk and opportunity cost involved, it’s foolish to think it’ll ever happen again. Rather than try to restore this tradition, a culture shift toward sports gambling similar to that of the NFL — another league known more for its massive team brands than individual star power — would go a long way in increasing fan engagement.
Whether it be through fantasy leagues or weekly Sunday pick ‘ems, sports gambling plays a fundamental role in NFL fan culture. The average non-betting NFL fan, for example, watches 15-16 games a year, while the average betting fan watches over 45 games a year, according to Nielsen Research.
The magic of March Madness is not just the dunks, buzzer beaters and improbable upsets, but the opportunity to join a bracket pool with your friends and have a personal stake in each game. If college basketball has any prayer at restoring regular season ratings to what they once were, they must embrace this reality.
As the old saying goes, when possible, play to your strengths. In college basketball’s case, fan engagement is the strength and embracing sports gambling is the play.