March Madness is over—but the sports betting companies looking to cash in on college fans are getting started

April 6, 2022, 4:13 PM UTC

March Madness may last just three magical weeks, but for the companies betting their futures on, well, betting, the end of the storied annual tournament is just the beginning.

“From a recruitment perspective, March Madness is one of our tentpoles,” says Adam Greenblatt, CEO of sports gambling player BetMGM. “March Madness bettors have shown themselves to be high-quality bettors.”

In other words, Greenblatt says, fans of college basketball, on average, tend to over-index on ROI when it comes to sports betting. Unlike, say, people who wager on the Super Bowl, they not only remain active for future March Madness tournaments, but also end up betting frequently on other events and sports.

And although Greenblatt and other betting company executives have declined to say how much gamblers wagered on the NCAA tournament over the past few weeks, projections point to a record-breaking year. The American Gaming Association (AGA) estimated that number to be in the neighborhood of $3.1 billion—the “largest legal handle in March Madness history.” One reason for the surge: 30 states have now legalized sports betting. According to the AGA, 29 million more U.S. adults could legally wager on the tournament this year than in 2021. Those numbers add up: According to Greenblatt, the number of bets placed during this year’s tournament were “well over double” the number placed last year.

It’s not clear exactly why March Madness fans are such big and frequent bettors. Greenblatt notes that they seem to have a more “emotional relationship” to their teams than, say, Super Bowl spectators, which might make them more prone to place a wager on those loyalties. (Perhaps they also have more disposable income? After all, there are plenty of March Madness watchers rooting for their alma mater, so it’s safe to assume that many are college grads.) Whatever the reasons, sportsbooks like BetMGM have been vying for these fans’ attention, hoping to cash in on them not just during the annual tournament, but also in the future.

That’s why New Jersey–based BetMGM, the sports betting division of Las Vegas’ MGM Resorts, has been throwing money at bettors—and potential bettors—over the past three weeks. The MGM unit, a joint venture with sports betting and gaming conglomerate Entain, has been marketing to March Madness fans since shortly after its founding in 2018. And while BetMGM also courted Super Bowl fans with wild offerings like hundreds of dollars in free bets just for signing up and shelling out a $10 deposit, Greenblatt says the value of March Madness fans is unparalleled.

BetMGM uses analytics software to predict the lifetime value of individual bettors within 21 days of their first bet—coincidentally, about the length of the NCAA tournament. The prediction goes well beyond March Madness, giving the company a glimpse of how much the fan is likely to wager on other sports as well.

It’s not just the quality of March Madness fans that makes them attractive for sportsbooks—it’s also the quantity.  

“The first four days of the tournament, we saw more bets than during the Super Bowl,” says Mike Raffensperger, chief marketing officer of FanDuel, a division of Dublin-based Flutter Entertainment, and the leading sports betting app.

To be sure, explosive customer growth in the betting industry—and not just during March Madness—is nothing new. In the spring of 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that banned individual states from authorizing sports betting. The decision opened the door to legal sports betting in many states, attracting all sorts of new and existing players who rushed to capitalize on these new markets. In addition to the 30 states that have already legalized it, 11 states will soon vote on whether to follow suit, including in California, which could provide a major bump to the industry.

“The appetite for Americans to legalize and engage in online sports betting continues to exceed our expectations,” says FanDuel’s Raffensperger. “Each time we launch in a new state, the uptake surpasses the last state.”

That uptake, however, even during March Madness, isn’t necessarily translating to comparable growth in sales and profits. The industry is still young and increasingly crowded. In addition to BetMGM and FanDuel, there are players like DraftKings, as well as a growing number of casinos, like Caesars, offering sports betting capabilities outside their physical locations. All of these companies are vying for customers, and spending big money to acquire them—including during March Madness.

“Sports betting operators promote more around big events,” says Shaun Kelley, an analyst with Bank of America who covers gaming and entertainment. “That means they make less revenue, as they’re using these incentives to attract new customers.”

Attracting new customers will continue to be the focus for companies like BetMGM and its competitors, as more and more states open the door to sports betting, and sportsbooks continue to compete for the attention of new, potential bettors. Whether or not the payoff will be there in the long term remains to be seen. But the players in the sector claim that the odds are in their favor. Says BetMGM’s Greenblatt: “We have great confidence that the work we are doing now will result in positive ROI.”