BOSTON — If the American Gaming Association’s estimates are correct, when the nets are lowered Monday night to conclude the NCAA Tournament, 68 million Americans will have wagered $1.5 billion on the NCAA Tournament.
Across the country, college athletic directors, coaches and their compliance office will be crossing their fingers and hoping that the athletes on their teams and their schools are not included in those numbers.
In-person and online sports betting may be legal in Massachusetts now, but it remains strictly prohibited by the NCAA. College athletes and athletic department officials are prohibited from betting on any contest involving a sport that the NCAA sponsors. They can bet on horse racing, boxing and all the international rugby they want, but NCAA checkers, Super Bowl draft, daily fantasy, etc. are prohibited. UMass sends regular reminders to its athletes and staff.
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“We’re sending out a notice on Selection Sunday saying, ‘remember, you can’t do anything about the NCAA Tournament,'” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said. “You can send a free band and if you win something, that’s OK. You can’t put money into anything to get money out.”
When bettors had to leave the state or gamble illegally to bet on games, administrators were still concerned with steering their fees away from trouble. But now, with a barrage of ads and promo codes on social media and traditional media (including MassLive) and billboards enticing people to sign up from the comfort of their phones, their efforts need to be redoubled.
“We would be naive to think that there was no gambling before this law went into effect,” said Blake James, Boston College’s athletic director. “This will become even more prevalent in Massachusetts with the passage of the law.” We continue to educate and inform our students.”
Bamford said he expects UMass to spend $10-20 thousand on improved education and training of the school’s athletes and staff. He said he has been in contact with the NFL, which offers its educational program to colleges in states where sports betting has just been legalized. He plans to have a former FBI agent speak to his teams as well. Bamford said he plans a more extensive program in the summer.
“The NFL has a really good intramural program. They reach countries where it is legalized. We’ve had some conversations with them about doing program work, especially for football and men’s basketball next summer,” Bamford said. “We’ve done a lot with our coaches and we’re going to do a really serious dose next summer when our guys are here and we’re going to have a captive audience.”
Online sports betting sites are not specifically aimed at athletes to become bettors. They target college campuses. According to a survey conducted by the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association, 50% of sports gamblers are between the ages of 18-34. College students, especially men (who make up 80 percent of gamblers) are a logical demographic to target. Bamford said there are constant ads on social media offering sign-up bonuses and other deals leading up to and immediately after legalization.
“It’s a lot like the marijuana lobby. They are smart. They know where the pockets are,” Bamford said. “Draft Kings were hitting us trying to infiltrate our campus. Draft Kings is all over TikTok and Instagram. 18-22 year olds live there.”
College athletic departments can benefit from revenue from these same ads. UMass currently has a sponsorship with MGM Springfield, but it is for the casino downtown. Current advertisements and signage do not include any incentives or references to on-site or online sports betting.
Bamford said sports betting sites have approached UMass about advertising.
“They’re hitting us to see if we want to do it. From the point of view of corporate sponsors, there is money to be made,” he said. “I’m still not comfortable with that, and as an institution we may never be comfortable with that.”
Up to this point, Boston College has not had a direct relationship with gambling companies.
By Massachusetts law, fans cannot bet on in-state college teams (except in the NCAA tournament), a difference Bamford and James appreciated.
“I was glad to see that Massachusetts schools were off the boards,” Bamford said. “Some of our kids are very naive about it.”
“As the state opens up this opportunity to Massachusetts residents, which I fully understand, it was the right approach to not allow teams to play in the state,” he said.
But legal sports betting is underway in Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. It’s legal in Maine, but the logistics are still being worked out. If someone wants to bet on a Massachusetts team, it can be as simple as crossing the border and opening an app.
The concerns are more than just preventing athletes from betting. Any inside information athletes give to their friends or even business partners they work with through name and likeness deals can be valuable to a gambler.
“We talked about it even before it was legalized – not to share information related to the team. Injuries, relationship status, academic status of you or your teammates,” Bamford said. “NIL adds a whole other level to someone you know personally. There are so many layers to this. There are so many things to be aware of.”
James said the key is to hammer home the idea of showing restraint if someone is unsure and reaching out and asking.
“We need to make sure we give our young people the information and knowledge they need to deal with some complex situations,” he said. “It’s just going to be more current. We’ll just have to have a great reminder and constant reinforcement of what is and isn’t allowed. … As this has opened up more of the possibilities of what our young people can do with name, image and likeness, the need to reinforce what is and is not in line with their capabilities is a message that we are I will have to repeat it to them regularly. Hopefully we’ve reached the point where they err on the side of caution. That’s the message we have to repeat to them – don’t act before you ask.”