Run into more customer service bots lately? Let Marketplace Tech know. More info

March Madness and American gambling habits

David Lazarus Mar 15, 2012

Jeremy Hobson: It’s March Madness time, which means productivity is about to plummet for those who love watching college basketball. And gambling is about to skyrocket because of those NCAA brackets that everybody’s filling out and betting money on.

L.A. Times consumer columnist David Lazarus is here to talk with us about gambling. Good morning.

David Lazarus: Good morning.

Hobson: What are the numbers, David — how many of us gamble, whether that be lottery or casinos or whatever?

Lazarus: The answer is most of us — about 86 percent of Americans gamble at least once a year. That’s talking going to casinos, March Madness, playing the ponies. About 16 percent of us gamble once a week.

Hobson: And does that number change when the economy gets better or when it gets worse?

Lazarus: We see the number of gamblers go up as the economy goes down. And there’s a reason for that: On the one hand, people are kind of looking for the brass ring to come their way; on the other hand, it’s a matter of proximity and availability. In other words, more and more municipalities, states, counties are making gambling available because they’re looking to gambling revenue to try to fill their coffers.

Hobson: Because often schools or whatever get some money when people gamble?

Lazarus: Precisely.

Hobson: Now, David, does the house always win? In other words, are the 86 percent of us who do gamble occasionally being stupid about it?

Lazarus: Yeah, not to put too fine a point on it. The latest numbers available suggest that we lose — and that’s the operative word here — we lose about $100 billion a year when we go gambling. Well somebody has to take it in, and typically it’s going to be the house. The house edge on most games is going to mean that they will win the longer you play. Now if you play a game like blackjack, the house edge is smaller, so it’ll take you longer to lose your money. You play a game like keno, and you might as well just walk up, hand in your money and walk away, because you’ve got no chance.

Hobson: What about the enjoyment we get out of doing something like March Madness? Is there an upside to it at all?

Lazarus: I would say the upside is the entertainment value, you have skin in the game, you’re feeling good, you’re a player. But more than likely, if you’re gambling, you will lose — and especially with me when it comes to March Madness. I just can’t ever get it.

Hobson: So just don’t put too much on the line.

Lazarus: Not this time.

Hobson: Have you filled out your bracket yet?

Lazarus: I’m still working on it.

Hobson: All right, L.A. Times consumer columnist David Lazarus, thanks a lot.

Lazarus: Thank you.

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.