Legalized Sports Betting a Sane Response to March Madness

Does it make sense that federal law makes millions of Americans into criminals, for doing nothing more than risking a few dollars on their March Madness bracket? My colleague Michelle Minton doesn’t think so, and in her new policy brief (with co-author Steven Titch) she explains why legalizing sports gambling will be good for consumers, state governments, and sports leagues themselves.

While most Americans may only wager a few dollars at a time on friendly bets, the total economic impact of wagering on sports is huge. The American Gaming Association estimated last year that Americans would bet over $9 billion on the NCAA basketball championship via “office pools, Nevada sports books, illicit offshore sites and illegal bookies.” The best way to deprive those shady oddsmakers of their ill-gotten gains, while still letting sports fans have their fun, is to take Michelle and Steven’s advice.

Fortunately their arguments are already getting some nice attention, including mentions in Politico’s Morning Money, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Legal Sports Report. Jason Sullum at Reason, author of Saying Yes and generally a fan of making all things legal, gave the paper a detailed review:

Americans may bet as much as $400 billion a year on sports, and nearly all of those wagers are illegal, whether they happen in office pools or on websites run by offshore companies.

Although criminalizing such a common and generally innocuous activity strikes libertarians as self-evidently insane, the general public is not so sure. Last year a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll found that only 48 percent of Americans supported “changing the law to allow people to place bets on sports in all states.” (By comparsion, Gallup puts support for marijuana legalization at 60 percent.) Another 2016 poll, by Seton Hall University, phrased the question differently, asking whether “states should be free to decide whether to legalize betting on sporting events.” That policy garnered support from 68 percent of respondents. A third poll from last year, by the Mellman Group, combined the two questions and found that 22 percent of respondents thought “sports betting should be legal nationwide,” while 58 percent thought “each state should be able to decide whether or not sports betting should be legal within its borders.” In other words, 80 percent opposed the current federal policy of preventing states from legalizing sports betting.

As Steven Titch and Michelle Minton note in a new paper from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, even professional sports leagues, which have long opposed letting people legally bet on their games, are starting to come around. In 2014 National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver wrote a New York Times op-ed piece arguing that “sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.” In 2015 Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN legalization of sports betting deserves “fresh consideration.”

Also, take a look at Michelle’s op-ed for U.S. News & World Report from back in February. The arguments for legalizing March Madness bets apply equally well to Super Bowl Sunday wagers.

CEI OnPoint No. 224, Time to End the Madness around March Madness: Legalizing Sports Wagering Will Increase Consumer Safety and Protect State Sovereignty is available here.