In early April, a handful of overjoyed college basketball players will be cutting down nets in Indiana. The whole month prior, a handful of overjoyed sportsbook operators will be adding up net receipts in Indiana and about 20 other legal sports wagering juridictions.
Of course, we can’t be sure that the sportsbooks will necessarily come out way ahead — we just know history suggests the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of that happening.
What we can be sure of is that sportsbooks will handle bets this month at a collective volume they’ve never experienced before. We’re barely one day into March, but it’s not too soon to say with confidence that this will be the biggest sports gambling month in the history of the regulated U.S. industry.
It wasn’t long ago that $3 billion in total national sports betting handle in a single month felt like a monumental projection. But that very quickly went from ambitious to ordinary. It happened in September, October, November, and December.
When January 2021 numbers are all in, the $4 billion barrier will be broken.
And just two months after that, in March, $5 billion is conceivably within reach.
Four score in January
As of March 2, two states have yet to report their January sports betting figures: Delaware, which is due to drop its report at any minute, and Illinois, which routinely runs a month or so behind everyone else and just shared its December numbers two weeks ago.
Without Delaware and Illinois, the national handle number sits at $3.764 billion. Delaware, which doesn’t permit online betting yet, has been good for between $15-$20 million in handle each of the last three reported months. Illinois, which does allow mobile betting in addition to retail, topped $430 million in each of the last three months of 2020, including a record $491.7 million in December.
If both states just replicate their December 2020 haul, that’s $507.4 million to add to the pie, putting the national total at $4.271 billion. Given that Illinois has shown handle increases every single month since mobile betting debuted last June, that is most likely a low-end projection, with somewhere slightly north of $4.3 billion more likely.
The national handle is poised to dip in February. It was a 28-day month with only one NFL game (albeit a big NFL game). February numbers are always lower than January numbers.
But then comes March.
One shining month
There is one reason, and one reason only, to believe that March will not break January’s record: Football is king for sports betting, and while gridiron contests were played every weekend in January, no meaningful football games are to be played in March.
That reason is overruled by the assorted factors working in favor of this current 31-day month.
The nod to college basketball players cutting down nets at the top of this article wasn’t random. Though the Final Four will take place in April, the first 64 games of March Madness are scheduled for the month featured in that nickname for the NCAA tournament.
And this isn’t just any March Madness tourney. This is the first March Madness tourney in two years. There’s a lot of pent-up March Madness betting to be done, especially in states that have never had the opportunity to legally bet on the annual (2020 excluded) sports betting bonanza.
It will be particularly huge in the basketball-mad state of Indiana, which will play host to the entire tournament this year. The biggest wagering month so far for the Hoosier State was January’s $348.2 million. US Bets’ Chris Altruda, the journalist responsible for tracking every state’s monthly numbers for us, said he believes a leap over the $400 million hurdle — a whopping 15% increase over the current record — is realistic for Indiana in March.
But even those states hosting zero games stand to do big betting business. March Madness games will be staggered differently than usual, with the two “First Four” games slated for Thursday, March 18, then a nonstop onslaught that Friday through Monday. The Sweet Sixteen will play out on March 27 and 28, and the Elite Eight on March 29 and 30 in prime time.
And college hoops games will be played every day between now and March 14, the last several days of that stretch being loaded with conference tournaments. March also features a heavy NBA schedule (including the All-Star Game this Sunday) and NHL schedule, spring training baseball, women’s college basketball, soccer, NASCAR races, golf’s Players Championship, and a major UFC pay-per-view event on March 27.
Michigan, Virginia, and other states coming of age
As loaded as the sports schedule is, though, the biggest reason that record betting handle in March is all but assured is the maturing of key markets.
Michigan and Virginia launched mobile sports betting about two-thirds of the way through January.
Michigan saw $150 million in January handle, $115 million of which came online. Triple that latter figure to represent a full month, then add in several months of growth in sports betting awareness as well as the March Madness factor, and the Wolverine State projects conservatively to attract some $400 million in wagers.
Virginia debuted with $58.9 million in bets in 11 days in January. So if we again triple that, plus note that the state has rolled out operators one at a time and is now at five with more to come, $200 million in March should be an easy number to hit. And unlike Michigan, Virginia didn’t allow retail betting first, meaning the awareness spike in the state should be more extreme than in Michigan.
In those three states alone, it’s easy to see March betting handle topping January’s by $400 million. Colorado is also in its first year and inching toward maturation each month, having crossed $300 million for the first time in January. Tennessee took its first bets in November and is also on a steep upward trajectory. Iowa is booming now that in-person registration for an online betting account is no longer required. Nevada is expecting to welcome March Madness gatherings. New Jersey is a favorite to secure the first-ever single-state billion-dollar handle month in March.
If January appears on its way toward about $4.3 billion in handle, $4.8 billion looks like a reasonable estimate for March.
And that sure isn’t far off from the magical number of $5 billion.
It’s true that handle isn’t really the most meaningful number in sports betting — revenue for the sportsbooks and tax revenue for the states are the figures with the more significant practical application. But handle is a shiny figure that speaks to the popularity of gambling on sports. And, boy oh boy, is $5 billion a shiny figure, especially when you consider that $3 billion was unheard of before the pandemic arrived.
We’re not saying the $5 billion barrier will be broken in March. We’re just saying it’s a live underdog when you consider all the factors.
And we’re saying with almost total certainty that March will be the biggest legal sports betting month America has seen yet. Given the sports calendar ahead and how long it will be before the next new major state launches, the mark it sets is likely to hold up until the NFL kicks off again in September.
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn / USA Today Sports