As March Madness descends upon the US, it's handy to remember the federal Supreme Court lifted the ban on sports gambling outside of Nevada about a year ago.
What the Supreme Court did not do, however, is legalize sports betting nationwide. Nor did it suddenly open up the market to the wide variety of illegal offshore sportsbook operators that have been serving the US for years.
But you wouldn't know that from how much of the world and the media industry treats offshore gambling. Mainstream media outlets have gladly given them free (and in some cases paid) promotion and advertisement in recent months.
The promotion of the offshore books has reached a fever pitch as America goes hoops crazy. Why is that? And what will it take to make it stop?
March Madness + offshore sportsbooks
Other than the Super Bowl, March Madness is the most significant time of year for wagering of all sorts in the US.
As the American Gaming Association pointed out in its recent poll on March Madness gambling, it estimates that $8.5 billion will be wagered on the men's basketball tourney in one form or another.
Bracket office pools make up the vast majority of that action, but a lot of it will come via straight wagers on games. And a lot of that action comes at books that are not serving the US legally. (This is not legal advice, but there seems to be little risk of any individual bettor ever getting in trouble for placing bets offshore, at this point.)
Also, there is no shortage of people who are happy to promote these books, although nothing has changed for them legally. Here are a few examples from the Twitterverse from verified accounts:
UNC at 12/1 is too high “Lose one of three to Duke and now Michigan is a bigger favorite than UNC to win March Madness @betmybookie?” https://t.co/frUbdL2E2x
— shannon sharpe (@ShannonSharpe) March 18, 2019
Odds to win #MarchMadness
Mich St +1200
Tex Tech +2000
Va Tech +3300
Ia St +4000
(odds via @betonline_ag )
— Todd Fuhrman (@ToddFuhrman) March 18, 2019
Here are all the opening lines for NCAA Tourney games: https://t.co/oQQ9tFtVUE
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) March 17, 2019
Updated NCAA Tournament odds via @betonline_ag pic.twitter.com/ziKocuGOoU
— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) March 18, 2019
You can also go to Travis's site, Outkick the Coverage, and get bombarded by MyBookie ads. In addition, if you got the Axios sports newsletter on Monday morning, it was “presented by MyBookie.” (Sources tell Legal Sports Report that MyBookie will not be returning as a sponsor.)
That's all despite the fact that there are more than a dozen legal New Jersey online sportsbooks and, of course, no shortage of Nevada sportsbooks that have been putting out lines on the games for decades.
Illegal vs. legal sports betting
Of course, the promotion of offshore sportsbooks is not surprising, but it should be a bit disheartening to those hoping to see the legal market grow.
So, why do illegal books get so much run while legal books are just getting established in new jurisdictions?
Offshore sportsbooks have been doing this for a while
Say what you want about offshore sportsbooks, but I can tell you this: They are very good at public relations.
They have been sending out press releases for years, and now they are doing it at a break-neck pace in the wake of the fall of PASPA. They also actively get their lines in front of people who have the ears of bettors and sports fans, as demonstrated in the small scale of examples above.
In any event, they are far ahead of the legal books on this front. Nevada books, with some exception, are most worried about their home market.
Now, however, as casinos and sportsbooks look at expansion around the US, some are getting more serious about building their brands. That's especially true as the likes of DraftKings Sportsbook and FanDuel Sportsbook have taken an early lead in mobile betting in NJ.
The legal books are pretty far behind on this front, and it's not clear how much it will change until sports wagering expands.
Interest in sports betting is up
Legal sports betting is only still available to a small percentage of folks in the US. But clearly, people are betting around the US whether it's legal or not.
When the Supreme Court struck down the ban, interest in sports betting went up. And since most states didn't — and still don't — have legal options up and running, that leaves the average Joe with betting on offshore sites. Anecdotally, marketing spending by some offshore books appears to have increased in the past year.
Here's another example: NESN in New England is partnering with VSiN on a daily TV show focused on betting. But betting is only legal only in Rhode Island in the region (and parts of New York soon).
But clearly, this isn't a play to cater to the RI sports betting and NY sports betting markets. It's a play for today — when people are betting whether it's legal or not — and for tomorrow when it could be legal in much of the region. The same goes for Travis and Fuhrman above, who appear on a daily TV show on FoxSports 1 about sports betting.
That's not to say it's bad or wrong — it's serving a market that exists, and a legal market that will grow. But that's also part of the reality of the weird limbo we're in before sports betting is widely legal and regulated.
So, will it — and should it —change for US sports betting?
It's a weird dynamic for media companies as legal wagering finds its footing.
There's more interest in content about sports betting, and the offshore books are good at helping to provide it. (Self-promotion alert: You can see live betting odds — including odds for March Madness — over at our sister site, TheLines.)
But if you're touting offshore sportsbooks' odds, you're helping — knowingly or not — the offshore market while helping hold back the legal market.
Media outlets are usually pretty good about drawing a line between what's legal and what's not, so it's strange to see journalists tout offshore books. In fact, newspapers and the media usually pride themselves on serving the public good.
While some would argue that offshore books are serving a need that is not being filled by the legal market, the industry exists unregulated and untaxed in the US. Well, that's certainly not serving the public good.
In any event, media companies should do their due diligence before citing Bovada, BetOnline and MyBookie illegal sportsbooks of the world. More and more legal sports betting is coming, and when presented with options that are operating legally and illegally in the US, the choice of which to cite should be a no-brainer.
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