Constable: Would 47 million March Madness bettors play legally if they could?

The NCAA men's basketball tourney starting this week will inspire 47 million Americans to wager $8.5 billion, Bill Miller, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, proclaims during a Monday conference call with the media.

More money will change hands during a few weeks of the tournament than the total value of goods produced and services provided in the nation of Haiti during an entire year. Nearly twice as many people bet on the tournament known as March Madness as they do on the Super Bowl.

"Americans like to bet on sports, and Americans do bet on sports," Miller says, adding that a survey shows only 4.1 million of those gamblers place bets legally with casino sportsbooks in Nevada or the seven states (Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, West Virginia, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island) that legalized sports betting since last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that makes it possible.

Anyone in Illinois or those other states without legal sports booking who plunks down 5 bucks and fills out a bracket predicting the outcomes for all 68 teams in an office pool or with friends is breaking the law, although arrests are practically nonexistent.

"Most people don't even know the activity they are participating in is illegal," Miller says. The American Gaming Association, the gambling trade group representing casinos, pushes the idea of making gambling on sports, including contests with amateur college athletes, legal in all states. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has touted the idea as a way to help raise funds in Illinois, and bills to make that happen are brewing.

"Unlike any other sporting event in the country, March Madness attracts millions who fill out brackets, make casual bets with friends or wager at a legal sportsbook, which Americans can now do more than ever before," Miller says.

I first became emotionally invested in the March Madness tournament as a kid in 1969. Having played out a simulation of the final game on my driveway hoop a hundred times, I was confident my Purdue Boilermakers and superstar shooter Rick Mount were going to vanquish a UCLA team led by center Lew Alcinder. UCLA won 92-72, Alcinder went on to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mount went on to open a hunting and fishing store in his hometown of Lebanon, Indiana, and I learned that those of us who follow our hearts instead of our heads aren't going to do well picking winners in NCAA tournaments.

That didn't stop me from picking an all-Hoosier Final Four whenever possible, selecting from teams such as Indiana, Purdue, Butler, Notre Dame, Indiana State and Valparaiso. That gave me a few champions (thanks, IU) in the 1980s, and some stunning upsets (thanks, Butler and Valpo), but never a complete bracket that finished in the money. When The New York Times first gave readers a chance to fill out a bracket online, my picks after Day One had me among the top 25 people in the nation. By Day Two, I had fallen out of the top 1,500.

I haven't even bothered to fill out a bracket in recent years, which makes me a winner (or at least a non-loser).

People want to bet on March Madness, and they do it illegally if they don't have a legal option, Miller says.

Even if Illinois legalizes sports betting through the proper channels, people might still participate in illegal office pools because it's more fun losing money to a co-worker than to a giant gambling institution. Miller adds that the casino industry spends $300 million on "responsible gaming" programs to recognize and help people for whom gambling is a problem.

My problem with gambling today is that I did enter a free online bracket pool and my simulation has Purdue, the only team from Indiana, winning the championship game 92-72 over Michigan State.

My first NCAA tournament prediction was that Rick Mount, right, and his 1969 Purdue team would beat UCLA and Lew Alcindor, left. UCLA won, and Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jaabar and the NBA's leading scorer. Mount opened a hunting and fishing shop in Lebanon, Indiana. Associated Press
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