(MCT) – March Madness might be the Super Bowl of sports betting.
By some measures, the NCAA men's basketball tournament is even bigger than the football game that's set the standard for big wagers, precision oddsmaking and packed Las Vegas sports books.
It's difficult to show the exact influence of March Madness – the Final Four, in particular – on the gambling world. That's because the event is spread over a month, and most betting statistics don't separate professional and collegiate basketball.
But experts say the wagers made in Nevada on March Madness probably will be in the vicinity of the record $119 million bet in the state this year on the Super Bowl. And they are certain that the number of bets placed on the tournament far surpasses that for the football game.
Any way the numbers are sliced, the Final Four next month in Arlington, Texas, is sure to produce winners and losers beyond those just on the court.
"March Madness is very, very big for us here in Nevada," said Jimmy Vaccaro, oddsmaker for South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa in Las Vegas. "And it just keeps getting bigger."
The tricky part of the bonanza is that the NCAA wants nothing to do with it.
All sports organizations are somewhat leery of sports betting, fearful that gambling could set the stage for point shaving or throwing games. But the NCAA is particularly aggressive in touting those potential ills.
"Sports wagering can be a serious crime that threatens the well-being of student-athletes and the integrity of the game," the NCAA wrote in a 2010 fact sheet on college sports gambling.
The NCAA even takes a hard line against the relatively small-dollar bracket pools popular in offices across the country.
It has cited an FBI estimate that more than $2.5 billion is wagered illegally each year on March Madness.
But an FBI spokesman in Washington told The Dallas Morning News he couldn't confirm the statistic and wasn't aware of the agency putting out such a figure in a formal way.
In any case, the gambling fervor around the NCAA Tournament _ in Las Vegas and beyond _ shows no sign of stopping.
More than $324 million was wagered last March on pro and college basketball at Nevada sports books, according to the state's gaming commission. That's a staggering 193 percent increase over the March basketball total in 1991.
Some estimate that 70 percent of the March basketball wagers in Nevada are made on the college game. That would put last year's March Madness tab at $227 million. Others offer more conservative estimates, which still put the tournament's handle in Nevada at about $90 million.
One handicapper, R.J. Bell of Pregame.com, figures that $12 billion worldwide is wagered on the NCAA Tournament.
The appeal partly is the excitement of the tournament _ and partly, maybe mostly, the opportunity to place lots and lots of bets.
"Ticket-wise, that's where March Madness is the king," said Jay Kornegay, director of the SuperBook at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.
March Madness features 67 games, with a veritable onslaught of matchups the first few days. For each one, bettors can wager on myriad aspects, from the straight-up winner to the point spread to the game's overall score.
Some of the biggest cheers and groans in the sports books – the giant, TV-filled casino rooms – actually come in the last few minutes of 20-point blowouts, when the point spread hangs in the balance.
It's no surprise then that March Madness' opening weekend – not the Final Four _ is prime time for Las Vegas. Fans, mostly younger men, start arriving the Wednesday before the early round games start and don't leave until Sunday night.
That weekend last year, March 23-24, was the busiest of the year for the city's hotels. The occupancy rate hit 97.7 percent, said the city's convention and visitors' authority. And all that spills over into the sports books.
"You have all hands on deck," Kornegay said.
Even with the volume of bets, oddsmakers say that setting the line for these games is pretty much academic.
They use various analytics and algorithms to create a power rating for each team. Then for each game, they can look at the betting trends at the offshore books, which are usually hours ahead.
Regardless of the outcome, the casinos charge a fee for handling the bets. So the key is to encourage as much action as possible.
And while a Cinderella run by a mid-major team might inspire hope of a similar performance at the sports book, the oddsmakers are the best No. 1 seeds out there.
They rarely lose.
BETTORS' BANQUET, BY THE NUMBERS:
• $324 million: The amount wagered on collegiate and professional basketball last March at Nevada sports books.
• $227 million: One possible estimate of the March Madness handle in Nevada, based on an estimate that 70 percent of March basketball wagers in Nevada are on the college game.
• $119 million: The record-setting amount wagered on the Super Bowl this year at Nevada sports books.
• $12 billion: The estimate of worldwide betting on the NCAA Tournament, according to R.J. Bell of Pregame.com.
• 97.7 percent: The hotel occupancy rate in Las Vegas for the opening weekend of March Madness, making it the busiest of the year.