Yes, Your NCAA Office Pool is Probably Illegal. No, You Won’t Get Arrested for Participating.
By Justin Peters
The annual NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, better known as “March Madness,” goes into overdrive today, as does the annual orgy of informal office-wide NCAA basketball gambling pools, better known as “this is probably illegal.” Billions of dollars are spent on bracket-based betting every March, with a fair portion of that sum likely coming from five-dollar bills tucked into manila envelopes discreetly marked “Pool Money.” In 2009, according to an MSN survey, an estimated 45 percent of Americans filled out at least one bracket, and it’s likely that the vast majority of those participants were non-sports fans who choose their teams based on nicknames, or uniform color, or other irrational criteria that make it especially aggravating when those people end up winning, as they so often do.
Are these pools actually illegal? Technically, yes: office basketball pools count as illegal bookmaking operations in most states. You're in the clear if your office is located in Nevada, where sports wagering is legal; in Montana, where sports pools are legal as long as the house doesn't take a cut; and in Vermont and Connecticut, where small-time pools among friends and colleagues are allowed. Pennsylvania is also considering laws that would legalize small-scale sports gambling pools.
The United States is fairly prudish about sports gambling in general. The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 which outlawed sports wagering in all but four states. Oregon, Delaware, and Montana were allowed to run “sports lotteries”; Nevada is still the only state where you can lay down a straight wager on a variety of sporting events. (New Jersey has long wanted to legalize sports betting; however, in March, a federal judge ruled that the state was still subject to PASPA.)
Legislators are always talking about trying to repeal, amend, or otherwise get around this law, because sports betting is a big and lucrative business that, if legalized and regulated, could bring big money into state coffers. According to the American Gaming Association, in 2011, $2.88 billion was spent on sports wagering in Nevada alone—a figure that “represents less than 1 percent of all sports betting nationwide.” (This figure is obviously just a guess, as there’s no good way to accurately calculate the sums being wagered off the books sports.)