Constable: Once a sporting distraction, gambling now the main event
In 2002, I wrote a column suggesting gambling was a distraction from the enjoyment of sporting events. Even though gambling on sporting events was illegal in Illinois, our sports agate page printed the odds, point spreads, over-unders and gambling lines. We explained how if Chicago was -115, that meant you had to wager $115 on Chicago to win $100 if Chicago won.
But it went way beyond our local teams. I didn't understand why our readers needed to know that Cameroon was a 50-1 longshot to win the World Cup that year. And it bothered me to be sitting in Wrigley Field and have a Cubs fan explain that he cheered when Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher David Williams struck out Cubs first baseman Fred McGriff because he had Williams on his fantasy baseball team and that strikeout could help him win some money.
Twenty years later, I've learned my lesson. Gambling isn't distracting people from the games, gambling is the game for many.
An estimated 44 million Americans plan to wager $3.1 billion on March Madness, the annual NCAA Division 1 men's basketball tournament, according to a survey from the American Gaming Association. That's more than 17% of the entire adult population, with fewer people betting on the women's basketball tournament.
In the men's bracket, Illinois fans on Friday will be rooting for their Fighting Illini to beat the Chattanooga Mocs, whose mascot is a Mockingbird since Chattanooga moved away from the Native American moccasin name. But many of those fans might also put money down on the underdog Blue Hens of Delaware to beat the 15.5-point spread against the favored Villanova Wildcats, or to top the 133.5 total points from both teams listed as the line between the over and the under.
Gambling gives some people a chance to care about more than which team wins and which team loses.
"With FanDuel you can make every moment of the game mean more," promises a television commercial for one of the myriad gambling enterprises that lets you gamble on your phone on a variety of events. At some point, prop bets allow you to put money down on how many assists a player might rack up, or which team will make the most 3-point shots, or if the game will go into overtime. While looking at your NCAA tourney bets, your eyes might wander to the Lithuanian women's basketball league, where you can bet that the first quarter of the game between BC Juventus Utena and Neptunas Klaipeda will end in a draw.
"Americans continue to make it clear: they want to wager with the protections of the legal, regulated market," said AGA President and CEO Bill Miller. "There's no doubt this year will generate the highest legal handle in March Madness history."
Sports radio shows and online NCAA basketball websites are flooded with information that really isn't about basketball, such as how in the last decade the No. 12 seeds are 17-16 straight up against the No. 5 seeds, and an improbably 21-11-1 against the spread in opening-round matchups. That might mean that you should put money on the No. 12-seed Richmond Spiders to beat the No. 5-seed Iowa Hawkeyes on Thursday, but I wouldn't bet on it.
A moneyline bet means you just pick the winner. A spread bet means that you are betting a team will win or lose by a certain number of points. A parlay allows you to link multiple bets and win more if all your best are winners.
The gambling websites all offer "risk free" bets or "insurance" or an "odds booster" or some other gimmick to lure you into the fray. While many sports fans relish in March Madness, some see March as National Problem Gambling Awareness Month. If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, crisis counseling and referral services can be accessed by calling 1-800-GAMBLER, texting ILGAMB to 53342 or visiting weknowthefeeling.org. And remember, it can be more fun watching an exciting basketball game when an amazing ending doesn't cost you money.