Opinion: Merrimack, Massachusetts March Madness Bettors Hurt By Horrible NCAA Rule

Written By Steven Schult on March 11, 2023Last Updated on March 14, 2023
Merrimack College basketball team robbed of March Madness appearance

For the third consecutive year, an absurd NCAA rule kept a university’s basketball team from reaching the ‘Big Dance.’

Just a few days ago, the Merrimack College men’s basketball team won the Northeast Conference tournament. Winning a Division I conference tournament usually guarantees those players a spot in March Madness.

But the school from North Andover, Mass. will have to wait at least another year before they get that opportunity. And sports bettors in Massachusetts will have to wait longer to put some action on a local men’s basketball team.

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The NCAA’s ‘transition rule’ strikes again

Thanks to what the NCAA calls the ‘transition rule,’ the Warriors will watch the tournament on TV instead of playing in it.

The rule states that if a college makes the jump from Division II to Division I, the teams can’t play in a postseason tournament for the squad’s first four years at the highest level of collegiate athletes.

It’s not just the NCAA tournament. These teams aren’t even eligible to play in the NIT.

Merrimack accepted an invitation from the NEC to join the conference and took its athletic programs out of Division II ranks after the 2018-2019 season to join the small Division I conference. Therefore, this is their last year transitioning to Division I. They will be eligible to make the postseason beginning next year.

This year, Merrimack dominated the NEC. The Warriors went 12-4 in regular-season conference play and took the top seed into the conference tournament. Their season culminated with a 67-66 victory over Fairleigh Dickinson on Tuesday in the championship game.

However, thanks to the transition rule, this year’s March Madness will not feature a school from Massachusetts.

But it will be Farleigh Dickinson playing in one of the biggest sporting events of the year. Not the team that won the title.

Last year, Bellarmine won the ASUN tournament in their second year at the Division I level. In 2021, the same thing happened to the women’s squad at California Baptist after winning the WAC tournament.

With poor timing, rule hurts Massachusetts sports bettors

Massachusetts sports betting launched the same year that Merrimack should’ve earned a spot in the tournament. The brick-and-mortar industry launched at the Bay State’s three casinos at the end of January. But the state introduced online sports betting on Friday.

Most of the year, it wouldn’t matter. Massachusetts has an in-state betting collegiate betting ban. Anyone wagering with a sportsbook licensed by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission can’t wager on a Massachusetts university. MA retail sportsbooks have already been fined for violating this rule.

That is, unless the program is playing in a tournament with four or more teams. The 68-team NCAA Tournament field is well above that benchmark, and March Madness betting could’ve been the chance to have some local action down.

Schools like Merrimack are usually filled with local students. Those local students become local alumni. And it could’ve been a little fun for alumni still in the state to place a small wager on their alma mater.

Moreover, Merrimack would’ve been the only school from the state in the field. The University of Massachusetts at Lowell lost to Vermont Saturday for the America East conference tournament title and another NCAA Tournament automatic bid.

Now, Massachusetts won’t have a single team in the men’s tournament. And nobody that went to school in Massachusetts will have the opportunity to wager on a hometown team.

No local action coming for men’s March Madness tournament

Just to be clear, I’m much more sympathetic to the student-athletes that won’t get to fulfill what was likely a lifelong dream. But Merrimack’s total enrollment this year was 4,121. I went to a small Division I college with a similar-sized student body.

When your athletic programs make it to a national tournament, it’s special.

If the Marist College pulls off a few more upsets and wins the MAAC tournament, I’ll probably put a couple of bucks on the game. And I’m sure some Merrimack alumni would’ve loved to do the same.

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Photo by AP / Charles Krupa
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Steven Schult

Steve stays on top of all things related to the national gaming industry. He is also a veteran of the gambling world. The native New Yorker started covering high-stakes tournaments in 2009 for some of poker’s most prominent media outlets before adding the broader U.S. gaming market to his beat in 2018.

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