WashU Expert: Your March Madness chances, or putting a quintillion into focus

And if legal, the tax share would run in the billions

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With four teams gone and 64 others commencing March 21 to play out 63 more games over 19 days and four regions and as many television networks to derive one 2019 NCAA men’s basketball champion…, well, it was time to turn this over to Liberty Vittert, a statistical expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

For one thing, she says you — as part of the 10 percent of the American population who participates in this form of technically illegal gambling — should forget about the perfect bracket.

“While choosing the perfect bracket will make Warren Buffett pay out a cool $1 million per year for life, the chance of actually doing that is 1 in 9.2 quintillion,” said Vittert, a visiting assistant professor in mathematics and statistics in Arts & Sciences, referring to Buffett’s basketball bet to America. “To give you some perspective, a quintillion is one billion, billions. Think 100 million people with Jeff Bezos’ net worth — or 200 million after the divorce finalizes… — or almost one-third of the American population.


“Now, that is assuming that you, like me, know absolutely nothing about basketball and are simply randomly guessing the perfect bracket. Different mathematicians have estimated the odds of picking the perfect bracket at 1 in 2.4 trillion and even as low as 1 in 128 billion — it’s a pretty crazy arena when 1 in 128 billion is deemed low. These estimates are based on some basic knowledge and certainly some assumptions about basketball; for example, a No. 16 seed never beat a No. 1 seed until last March.

“While I can guarantee you the perfect bracket ain’t gonna happen for you this year, Americans continue to bet on all aspects of this basketball phenomena, to the tune of $8.5 billion projected this year.”

Now, back to the part about illegal gambling….

Vittert looks through a statistical lens and sees inequity in the numbers. Such as: Only 3 percent was wagered last year on March Madness through the legal sports books in Nevada, going by American Gaming Association (AGA) estimates. That means some $9.7 billion was bet illegally. That’s a pile of potential taxable money, no matter how a statistician slices it.

“Unlike the state-run Mega Millions type of lotteries, sports betting encompasses a much larger demographic,” she said. “For instance, the lowest income households are four times more likely to buy a Lotto-style ticket than the highest income households. So why aren’t these richer people getting taxed for their gambling winnings?

“In 1992, the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act came into effect, basically outlawing sports betting in almost every state. That means that since 1992, all of the March Madness betting has effectively been illegal. But this past May, the Supreme Court overturned the law, with eight states having since made sports betting legal.

“Over the past 10 years, we can easily say that, even given tax evasion by some of our gamblers, the government has thrown $20 billion in taxes out the window with these sports betting laws… or roughly the GDP of Afghanistan.”

No, Liberty Vittert isn’t going to give you odds on Duke… or Liberty University (no relation), for that matter.

But she offered one last number: “The AGA estimates that the American public bets over $150 billion on sports illegally every year. At a federal tax rate of 25 percent, not to mention state taxes, even assuming half of the winnings aren’t reported, that is a lot of dough.”

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