Are NCAA Tournament Pools Legal?

Will the FBI become the real "bracket buster"?

Basketball and money
Nick M Do/Photodisc/Getty Images

The standard NCAA Tournament bracket pool -- along with the weekly football picks and the "Superbowl boxes" -- is part of the holy trinity of American sports gambling. Even casual sports fans will participate in a betting extravaganza that has been estimated at $2.5 billion in wagers -- with only a little over 3 percent of that number handled by legal gambling outlets like the sports books at Las Vegas casinos.

That leaves over $2.4 billion dollars changing hands -- mostly in tens and twenties -- at offices nationwide. Which raises an important question: is any of this legal?

The simple answer is "No, but the FBI has better things to do than chase down cubicle-dwellers for dropping a ten-spot on UCLA." But simple answers are rarely satisfying, so let's examine the question in a little more detail.

It's not a difficult question. Are they legal or aren't they?

First off, let's remember that your intrepid guide is not a lawyer, nor does he play one on TV. All the standard disclaimers apply -- don't go printing out this column as evidence if you get yourself arrested.

In most cases, NCAA Tournament pools -- along with just about every other form of gambling -- are illegal in most jurisdictions in the United States. The obvious exceptions are casinos, state-run lotteries and horse racing, but there are many others. The "Vegas Night" in your church's basement is probably legal under an exemption for charities. The Super Bowl boxes posted on the wall of your local barber shop almost certainly are not.

Some states allow limited gambling on events like the NCAA Tournament, so long as it is a "winner take all" format -- in other words, the organizer can't take a cut of the money -- and with maximums as to how much can be bet. Vermont is one example.

Montana also allows limited legal NCAA Tournament betting. State law in Big Sky country makes distinctions between "private" and "public" betting. So if you live in Missoula, and your "office pool" is actually limited to people in your office, you're probably OK.

That aside, in nearly every official pronouncement about NCAA tournament betting, you'll find a caveat along these lines: "We're not about to go breaking down any doors over a $20 bet.

So as long as I keep the dollar amounts under, say, $100, I'm OK?

That's sort of like saying, "They won't pull me over for doing 64 in a 55 -- they only ticket if you go ten miles over the speed limit." It might be true, it might not -- and you don't want to be the person who runs into a particularly grumpy state trooper while testing the theory.

Certain municipalities -- Charlotte, North Carolina for one -- have made public statements saying NCAA Tournament gambling is illegal no matter the amount wagered and will be treated as such.

But if I'm in a pool with friends and family and we keep the bets reasonable, we're ok, right?

Probably, yes.

Of course, if your friends and family aren't local, there's another factor to consider: making interstate phone calls to place bets of any sort is illegal under federal statutes. That same law probably covers Internet bets as well. The FBI is unlikely to start wire-tapping you over this, but it is worth noting.

The Feds? Yikes. What else do I have to worry about?

Don't worry about the FBI. Worry about your employer. Some companies will turn a blind eye to the annual March Madness pool, or even sponsor an official contenst in the name of office camaraderie.

Others may feel very differently. Some human resources professionals are concerned that encouraging March Madness office pools might expose their companies to all sorts of issues. If you're the "office bookie," make sure you read up on your company's policies before sending out bracket pool invites on the corporate e-mail system. And others may not care what you do, so long as you don't do too much of it on company time.

Of course, if you are subject to greater scrutiny due to your chosen profession -- if you're a judge, or a college football coach or a NBA referee, it might be best to skip betting entirely.

OK, I get it. So, short of moving to Montana, what CAN I do?

Don't rule it out... we hear Helena is lovely this time of year. But we do have a few simple tips:

  • Use common sense. You're much better off playing in an established office pool that your company sponsors -- or at least acknowledges -- than dropping $500 on an entry in some bar.
  • Keep the stakes reasonable. If you want to bet like Rick Neuheisel, go to Vegas.
  • Don't assume that your company will allow you to run a pool. Even if it does, don't do it on company time, and don't use nine reams of company paper printing out flyers.

And never, ever, bet on a sixteen seed in the first round.