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Why March Madness still means a lot to some Virginia students

The world of sports betting has changed the way the NCAA Tournament is viewed.

As the final buzzer sounded Thursday night in Brooklyn, N.Y., what Virginia basketball fans hoped would never become reality finally was set in stone — for the first time since 2013, the Cavaliers would not be heading to the NCAA Tournament. With that being the case, it would be completely understandable for many Virginia fans to become less interested in the finale of the college basketball season — or March Madness, as it has been branded. 

Yet for some Virginia students — including third-year College student Max Pilloff — March Madness has become an even more valuable period due to a law that went into effect in January of 2021. Though sports betting was previously illegal, those over the age of 21 can legally gamble on sporting events in the state of Virginia, and there is perhaps no more important time for gambling than the NCAA Tournament.

“There’s just a plethora of games to bet on that are exciting and matter,” Pilloff said. “There’s no other time in the year where you have that many games that matter in such a short amount of time.”

Virginia is not the only state that has passed laws allowing its residents to bet on sporting events. As of February 2022, more than two dozen states have passed laws legalizing gambling, though a few only allow in-person activity to occur. Some states — most notably New York — have done so within the past year, leading to projections for the 2022 NCAA tournament gambling amounts to skyrocket given the increased accessibility. 

Bennett Conlin, a sports betting reporter who works for Better Collective, a sports media company, says that March Madness is one of his team's most popular events of the year in terms of content and coverage.

“I think you get a lot of casual fans and casual bettors who maybe don’t follow the entire college basketball season but once March madness hits you have people who are filling out a bracket, ousting some bets down on games,” Conlin said. “It’s certainly a popular time of the year. The Super Bowl’s the biggest, but March Madness is up there for sure.”

A psychological impact plays a part in what makes betting on March Madness so popular as well. For Economics Prof. Terence Johnson, who teaches a course on game theory at the University, the single-elimination style of tournament that March Madness uses is what he thinks draws attention to the sport.

“Imagine that you used a Round Robin Tournament instead, where each team played all other teams, and the teams are ultimately ranked by their overall win-loss record,” Johnson said. “Luck would be less of a factor across many games.”

Pilloff has seen an increase in popularity among his own friends as well, whether at the University or back home. With a combination of him turning 21 and sports betting becoming legal in the state of Virginia, he felt like it was the perfect time to take advantage of the most popular collegiate sports tournament in the country.

“I think it’s pretty popular, especially with the legalization, just how easy it is to create an account on all of these books,” Piloff said.

One aspect that makes gambling on March Madness unique is how large the gap of talent is between the typical powerhouses of the sport and teams from smaller conferences. Because of the amount of money the larger schools make — in 2019, Duke spent nearly 10 times the amount that CSU-Fullerton, its opponent, spent on men’s basketball — the level of play is typically enormous, and leads to teams being large favorites in the first and second rounds of the tournament. This leads to headaches for sports bettors, since both the talent level and schedule disparity makes it hard to judge how good a team really is. 

“It’s hard to judge, especially in these early-round games with teams from small conferences who haven’t played anyone,” Piloff said. “I generally just go by the eye test, which probably isn’t the most scientific way, but if a team looks like they’re above and beyond better than their competition, then I’m willing to bet on them.”

Conlin was able to provide some insight into how sportsbooks such as FanDuel or Draftkings are able to create lines that are seemingly accurate almost every time and can cause immense frustration, especially with first-time bettors.

“Sportsbooks have their own internal people also analyzing the spreads,” Conlin said. “They’ve done a good job setting the lines and understanding the market and reacting to how the market views things.”

Another unique trait of March Madness is the quasi-gambling that already happens every year in the form of filling out brackets. Through sites such as ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, anyone can predict every single game of the tournament for free, and the winner this year gets $100,000 from the parent company, Disney. In addition, it is extremely popular to set up bracket pools over all facets of life — from a friend group to an office. Therefore, Pilloff feels like the new gambling aspect in a way isn’t so different from what he’s already been doing.

“I was always in a ton of bracket pools, so I always felt like I had money riding on the tournament games, even before I was sports gambling,” Pilloff said. “But now I just care more about the blowout games because I wanna see if the team’s gonna cover the spread.”

Conlin agrees with Pilloff, citing some of the early-round games between very high and very low seeds that — while likely ending in blowouts — will have eager bettors watching until the very end.

“Duke doesn’t care whether they win by 15 or 25, they’re just trying to advance to the next round, so it's a situation where late in the game, they’re up 23, they can put in their backups and walk-ons for a minute or two and CSU-Fullerton is able to cover,” Conlin said. “So there’s certainly a story within the game that I think bettors like, too.”

Because Virginia did not make the tournament, gambling provides University students such as Pilloff the opportunity to still feel connected to the event, since it has — for better or worse — been an expectation that the Cavaliers will be playing come March every year. With real money tied up in games, Pilloff has even more incentive to be watching closely.

“For me, it just adds excitement,” Pilloff said. “It just makes the game more interesting and makes me a little bit more emotionally invested in what I’m watching.”

Johnson agreed with Pilloff’s sentiment, noting the buzzer-beaters and Cinderella stories that ultimately give the NCAA Tournament its nickname.

“Every branch of the bracket and every team in the tournament suddenly matters,” Johnson said. “It can't be exciting without uncertainty, and the March Madness design does its best to maximize uncertainty.”

Even though no one will see any Cavalier uniforms this year in CBS’s tournament ending-montage, Virginia students like Pilloff will still be watching March Madness just as intently as ever.

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