You Should Bet on March Madness, But Not For the Cash

On a certain few days in March, I know exactly what’ll wake me every morning at six: text messages from my buddy Gordo, an ex-athlete and East Coast finance guy who, in full ex-athlete-and-East-Coast-finance-guy fashion, will need to talk sporting numbers and figures. March Madness, to be exact. I know this because Gordo woke me with the same type of messages every fall Sunday. A sample chain from NFL week 13:

Gordo: “I’m thinking Broncos -5 against the Bengals, Panthers -3.5 against the Buccaneers, and Texans -5 against the Browns. What are you thinking?”

Me: “Broncos definitely. They’re surging, and the Bengals’ QB situation is dismal. Why the Panthers and Texans?”

Gordo: “It’s a must-win for the Panthers, and the line seems low. Texans are underrated and have won eight straight.”

Me: “Let’s do it. Thoughts on Bears -3 against the Giants? Bears have covered most games. Giants rarely cover and have incentive to bomb for a draft pick.”

Gordo: “Oh yeah. Might do that one too.”

We’ll soon add many more links to the text chain, because the first two rounds of March Madness are the event of the year. We’ll be in constant contact, watching games with the fervor of hometown fans, strategizing high-value money-line upsets, commiserating over bad calls, and sending “holy shit!!!” texts over wager-win buzzer-beaters.

Are we degenerates?

Nah. I’d like to think that legalized sports betting is to us and an increasing number of modern guys what cold ones at the Elks club are to aging vets: a bonding experience, the best thing to happen to male friendships since recess. Gordo and I go deep together on lines, spreads, and parlays every football season, March Madness tournament, and NBA playoff run.

This at a time when male friendships are tanking. It’s an issue across the board: Nearly half of Americans feel lonely, and 20 percent say they rarely, if ever, feel close to other people. And that’s cutting us down. Loneliness raises your risk of depression and is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The friendship crisis is hitting men harder than women, and your wife/girlfriend alone won’t cut it—science suggests that men gain a different sort of emotional fulfillment from their male friends.

Sixty-seven percent of guys follow sports, because, well, sports are awesome. Research has found that having financial skin in the game makes them more awesome, causing greater spikes in dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical. A wager can even quickly cause you to become enraptured in a sport otherwise foreign to you, as Gordo and I found, for example, when we bet on the Masters Tournament.


Not the old sports betting scene

You may not be aware that sports betting isn’t what it used to be. For a long time, with the exception of Nevada, it required going to some dive to meet some hardened bookie, picking ponies at a track or OTB facility, or entering daily fantasy tournaments on websites like DraftKings.

But last May, the Supreme Court lifted a ban on sports betting in New Jersey, paving the way for the remaining states to get in on the deal. In eight states, you can now bet on any game at a casino; some even allow it from an app on your phone. The business is organized, streamlined, and legit, and major sports leagues (NBA, MLB, NHL) and media are all in on the action.

“I knew people who did it illegally, but I just didn’t want to get into that,” says Andrew, a lawyer living in New Jersey (who didn’t want to give his full name, since some people still associate sports betting with illegality). “Now I can put a few bucks down on a game from my phone. It makes games more interesting, and it’s given me something to talk about with guy friends, especially the ones who you know just because your wives are friends.”

Seventeen other states and the District of Columbia are moving toward legalized sports betting because, among other benefits, it’s a boon for taxes, says Bo Bernhard, executive director of the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The rest of the states haven’t taken it off the table, except for Utah, because it’s Utah—although they have a bit of a point. It’s always possible to go too far: About 2.5 percent of people in the U. S. have a gambling disorder. When you’re in its grip, gambling consumes you: You miss work to play, you ask others to bail you out from losses, you feel restless and irritable when you try to cut back, and you think you can solve some of these problems with more gambling. Deny you have an issue? That’s a sign, too. If friends think you’ve gone too far, hear them out.

But for the average man, legalization likely wouldn’t bring on the avalanche. Not only are states banking on it, but big businesses are, too. Buffalo Wild Wings is exploring adding betting to its restaurants, and Vegas mega-casinos are adapting to the sports-betting-as-bonding trend, overhauling traditional sports books—picture individual cubiclelike bays with little TVs and rows of seats all facing the same direction—to make them more sports book meets sports bar.

It’s good for you?

Unlike the type of gambling that has you sit alone at a slot machine and pull a handle, “gambling on sports can be nourishing,” says Alan Zaremba, Ph.D., a professor at Northeastern University, who wrote The Madness of March: Bonding and Betting with the Boys in Las Vegas. “Not from a nutrition point of view, because you have guys eating wings and drinking beer, but from a friendship point of view. Guys seem to become a cohesive unit when they have a stake in an outcome of a game.”

Gordo and I hung out often immediately after college, but then we each moved around the country for work. The weekly conversations dwindled to monthly and then to quarterly, the same phenomenon that happens to so many guys across their 20s and 30s and 40s. Research from Oxford University shows that your social circle peaks at 25 and shrinks rapidly after that.

Then I moved to Las Vegas while Gordo’s state was legalizing sports gaming. We started talking about it, and betting be-came our “thing.” Now, our conversations start with mapping out wagers, of course, but they often veer off into topics like life, current events, and plans to meet up.

Men seem to have evolved to bond over winning, losing, and strategizing together. “Women’s friendships tend to be more face-to-face, while men’s tend to be more side-to-side,” says Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., a friendship researcher at the University of Maryland. That explains why your wife and her friends can build relationships over a glass of wine, whereas you and your posse do better watching a game.

I’ve since had other old friends in now-sports-betting-friendly states reach out to talk picks. And I know that when it’s midnight on the East Coast and the first Thursday of March Madness games is done, I’ll get more texts from Gordo.

Gordo if we’re up for the day: “Not a bad day of betting. I’ll take it.” Or, Gordo if we’re down for the day: “Well, it was worth a shot. Fun anyway.”

Not that it really matters. I rarely bet three figures; for me, it’s about more exciting games and conversation with friends. So I’ll turn off the TV and sleep for eight hours before Friday’s workday. Then, of course, my phone will ping again.

Gordo: “Hey, I’ve been thinking about this three-team parlay for tomorrow and I wanted to get your thoughts . . .”

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