Ultimately, this is what the people running college athletics really mean when they talk about broadening an audience for their product:
For the next three weeks, according to gaming industry estimates, nearly 40 million Americans will gamble more than $2 billion on the outcome of a tournament featuring the nation’s best unpaid basketball players.
The tradition starts Sunday evening, with the unveiling of the 68-team NCAA tournament field, and will continue this week in offices across the country. Come Thursday at noon Eastern, when games tip off in earnest, sports bars will fill and Internet streaming capabilities will strain as bettors keep track of their wagers on an event run by a nonprofit organization vehemently opposed to gambling.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket pool is an inimitably American tradition that encapsulates all that is complicated, contradictory and, some say, hypocritical about the cultural and financial heft of sports in our society.
Ask the casual fan about NCAA men’s basketball, and the response will involve brackets. But there’s real money in those numbers, which is why the NCAA likes those broad numbers. And chases those broad numbers in every way it can. (96-team March Madness, anyone?)
Which is also why it has a hard time getting its story straight on gambling.
… Otteman credits the NCAA’s anti-gambling publicity and education campaigns, but he is still bothered every year when the organization, on its Web site, provides printable brackets that are inevitably used for gambling.
“That’s where it goes sideways to me,” Otteman said. “It’s a very hypocritical stance, in terms of fighting against legalization but still profiting from the popularity of the brackets.”
The stance likely won’t change. On Tuesday, in a federal courtroom in Philadelphia, attorneys for the NCAA will continue the fight to keep sports betting illegal. A hearing is scheduled that day in a case between the NCAA, professional sports leagues and the state of New Jersey, which has been trying to legalize sports betting for years.
Meantime, on Monday morning, many federal employees will be reminded that their standards of conduct prohibit them from participating in any gambling activity while on duty or on government property. And if they have ESPN, they can watch live later this week as President Obama fills out his bracket.
Hey, Obama! No wonder he’s in favor of an expanded college football playoff.
The days of root, root, root for the home team seem to grow ever more quaint.