DraftKings Sportsbook director Johnny Avello is no stranger to the March Madness betting scene.

He spent plenty of years in Las Vegas, which up until this year, had the monopoly on the NCAA Tournament legal sports betting action.

Atlantic City may not have The Strip, but it is home to eight retail sportsbooks. Add in two more at New Jersey racetracks and 13 online sports betting platforms, and suddenly there are a lot of skins in the game.

DraftKings continues to be one of the top performers since its summer 2018 debut in the Garden State.

Avello said this year’s NCAA Tournament is creating a whole new level of NJ sports betting excitement.

“To me this is a big deal. This is one of the bigger events of the entire year. I am very happy to see it.”

The New Jersey factor

The March Madness betting rules are slightly different in New Jersey.

In jurisdictions such as Las Vegas and Pennsylvania, customers have the opportunity to bet on all 67 games. But in the Garden State, at least two first-round games are off the board at retail and mobile online sportsbooks.

Wagers on New Jersey-based colleges or collegiate events are prohibited. The rule applies to even the biggest college sporting event of the year, the NCAA Tournament.

It means there will be two fewer games to bet on today:

  • No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson vs. No. 1 Gonzaga
  • No. 10 Seton Hall vs. No. 7 Wofford

For its part, DraftKings Sportsbook is not taking any chances with the Garden State’s rules.

Even the free Bracket Challenge automatically advances Gonzaga and Wofford into the second round. If New Jersey customers attempt to pick one of these two teams, this Regulation Restriction message will appear:

“Due to New Jersey gaming restrictions, no team from New Jersey can be picked in this Bracket. They will be displayed in the bracket but may not be chosen as the winner of any game.

“In the event where two teams from New Jersey play in the same game, this game will not be counted in the final scoring.”

While it may seem like a big deal, Avello is not too concerned about it impacting the overall March Madness betting business.

“It’s not that big a deal. There are so many games over the next four days.”

Besides, Duke is the favorite

When talking about the futures on this year’s NCAA Tournament, many bettors are going to look at the Duke Blue Devils. DraftKings NJ sportsbook app has the Atlantic Coast Conference champions currently listed as the favorite to win it all at +240

Having arguably the best college basketball player in the nation with freshman  Zion Williamson certainly helps. So does being the No. 1 team.

But setting the odds on Duke is a several-month process that dates back to last year’s NCAA Tournament. Avello said there was a lot of talk leading up to this season about how good Duke was going to be.

But during the season, Duke lost both regular-season games to fellow No. 1 seed North Carolina, and Williamson missed significant time with an injury.

Then in the ACC Tournament semifinal, Duke defeated the Tar Heels by one point, 74-73. The Blue Devils followed it with a 73-63 victory over Florida State heading into Selection Sunday.

Now that the tournament is here, how is Duke looking to win it all?

“Duke will probably make it to the Sweet 16 rather easily. Covering the point spread is another story. [The point spreads] are the equalizer,” Avello said.

In the first round, Duke is a 27-point favorite over No. 16 seed North Dakota State. Bettors need to decide if the oddsmakers got the number right of if there is too much weight on Duke.

The underdog factor

Part of what makes the NCAA Tournament one of the more exciting betting events of the year is the potential for upsets. Sometimes even shockers.

One of them took place during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. University of Virginia, the No. 1 seed, got knocked out in the first round by a No. 16 seed, University of Maryland Baltimore County.

It was a tournament first. Could the same scenario happen again? Absolutely.

But Avello notes that the upsets affect the bracket contests more than anything else. He’ll make necessary adjustments to the odds as the tournament moves into the later rounds.

Then there are the defending national champion Villanova Wildcats from Pennsylvania who bring the local appeal and fanbase.

The Big East champs, who are a No. 6 seed, open against No. 11 St. Mary’s tonight. DraftKings has Nova as a 4.5-point favorite.

But Avello is not overly confident about Nova’s chances in the tournament:

“They just didn’t have it this year. They have a tough first-round match against St. Mary’s. It’s not an easy game.”

NJ mobile sports betting versus retail

If you analyze the monthly numbers from the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, it’s clear that New Jersey customers prefer mobile sports betting over retail.

For February, New Jersey’s 23 retail and online sportsbooks combined for an overall handled of $320,368,087. This number includes Super Bowl betting and Oscars betting, both legally being offered for the first time in New Jersey.

But in terms of the year-to-date handle, $563,806,320 of the $705,608,486 wagered has come in via NJ sportsbook apps.

When DraftKings Sportsbook launched in New Jersey, they didn’t have a retail sportsbook. The DraftKings Sportsbook at Resorts didn’t open until November.

“We always knew that digital would take over,” Avello said. “We were the first to market on the Jersey side. [Mobile/online] was the only way to bet.”

But if there is going to be a shift toward the retail end, March Madness betting could be the event that does it. Avello said retail is very important for this tournament as people want to be in the thick of it.

And for good reason.

There is the camaraderie factor. Plus with games going on from noon to past midnight, especially during the first three days of the tournament, there is little reason to leave the casino or racetrack.

And there a plenty of places to grab a seat, too.

Move over Nevada: March Madness is everywhere

Up until now, this NCAA Tournament betting experience was a Nevada thing. College basketball fans would schedule weekend trips to Las Vegas around the first four days of the Big Dance.

But how will the numbers out west be impacted by the arrival of sports betting back east? We will have to wait until after the 2019 national champion is crowned on April 8 to really tell the story.

But for now, New Jersey residents and visitors are about to experience a legal sports betting event like no other.

Avello is looking forward to seeing how things play out.

“This is new to everybody outside of Nevada. I think everybody is going to have a lot of  fun on it. … It’s an opportunity for everybody to enjoy what Nevada has been enjoying for the past 40 years.”

Bill Gelman

About

Bill Gelman is a veteran sports writer based just outside of Philadelphia and not too far from the Jersey Shore. Bill spends time in Atlantic City writing about casino openings and expansions, special events and world championship boxing at Boardwalk Hall. He is now adding NJ sports betting and online gambling to the mix.