For the sports bettor hungering for action during this sports shutdown, the global menu these days offers the three-meals-a-day equivalent of haggis, vegemite and roasted grasshoppers.
Soccer in Burundi, table tennis in Moscow, basketball in Tajikistan, hockey in Belarus — maybe the most hardcore enthusiast of gambling action can get by on that, but to the general betting public in the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has amounted to gruel for the still young and relatively small sports betting segment of the gambling industry.
Sportsbook operators such as DraftKings are pushing the envelope of what defines action by offering free pools guessing what the high temperature in San Francisco will be, the value of the first answer chosen on "Jeopardy,” or whether Bernie Sanders would say "millionaire” or "billionaire” first in the last Democratic debate.
Futures wagering, especially in the NFL, such as where a free agent quarterback like Cam Newton will wind up, or Super Bowl odds still qualify as a traditional component to a usual sportsbook. Horse racing is still an option, fantasy leagues, some mixed martial arts are still, somehow, permitted and esports in particular is starting to gain traction.
In Massachusetts, where sports betting legislation is under discussion, the quickest legal sports betting option since December has been to drive over the New Hampshire state line and use the DraftKings mobile app.
Now, it’s not only illegal to do that during a stay-in-place order, but there’s not much of a reason, either.
"These are niche products that put a finger in the dam, but don’t have any real hope of replacing the kind of betting volumes that mainstream sports generate,” Chris Grove, a gambling industry analyst at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, said in an email. "Imagine the Super Bowl if all you could bet on was the national anthem length and the coin toss and you get a sense of the proportions involved.”
At this exact moment on the sports calendar, the absence of March Madness is particularly glaring. The weeks-long college basketball tournament draws far more bettors and billions of dollars more in bets than the Super Bowl, according to the American Gaming Association.
Grove said that the numbers are still coming in since the shutdown, but sports betting revenues worldwide are off "north of 80 percent” at this point.
In the United States, legalized sports betting is still in its toddler stage since the Supreme Court’s PASPA ruling in May of 2018, the major reason why Grove believes there will be "minimal impact” from this shutdown. Only 20 states have legalized sports betting. Last year, sports betting revenue generated $908 million in revenues, according to the AGA. With overall gaming revenues last year estimated to be approximately $75 billion, sports betting represented 1.2 percent of revenues — small, but up 110 percent from 2018, when sports betting generated $433 million, or six-tenths of one percent.
Pending Congressional action, a coronavirus stimulus plan is expected to offer substantial relief to the gaming industry, which is inextricably linked to equally hurting industries in the hospitality, convention, transportation and entertainment fields.
Mobile betting operators like industry leaders FanDuel and DraftKings are positioned to bounce back quicker than retail outlets when sports return, said Grove, who is bullish on more states turning to sports betting.
The state legislature of Vermont, which has been the New England laggard on sports betting, created a sports betting study committee this Tuesday.
"We expect a positive impact on legalization efforts,” said Grove. "Sports betting already enjoyed significant political momentum, and the need to provide some relief to impacted casino operators will likely serve as an extra push in states that were on the fence.”
In the meantime, the sports betting world is adapting to a new reality, blind like all of us in knowing how long that reality will last.
For Brian Musburger, CEO of the sports-betting VSIN network, these are truly strange times.
"Everybody’s trying to process what’s going on and figure out when games will resume as scheduled,” said Musburger, who said he had recently heard of someone putting together an office pool in order to bet on old lumberjack contests. “I think the longer this goes on, Vegas does one thing very well — it finds creative ways for people to bet on unknown outcomes.”
Johnny Avello, head of DraftKings’ Sportsbook, has been working for Las Vegas sportsbooks since the 1980’s.
He never thought he’d be spending so much time talking about darts, cricket and table tennis handles — especially in late March. He emphasized he is as busy as he ever was, dealing with the present and planning for the future.
"Here’s what I think is going to happen: We offer these new options and we get back to normal and then we have customers who found that maybe something was a little bit of a niche for them and they continue to bet that, therefore we’ll actually have normal content and then this auxiliary content,” said Avello.
With the ratings success of NASCAR’s iRacing event a week ago, and the growing acceptance by major bookmakers such as William Hill, esports seem most poised to take the leap from "auxiliary” to "normal” content.
Scott Burton is CEO of Askott Entertainment, a business-to-business esports betting supplier. His business has seen a "significant upturn” in inquiries from partners outside the traditional sports betting operators universe looking to invest. Traditional sports bettors have not yet gravitated to it, and that’s not a problem.
In an email, Burton wrote, "During this time, esports betting will get some of the traditional sports bettors, but I think the large sustainable growth will be from gamers spending more time watching esports and finding quality esports betting products to engage with.”
What sports bettors engage with these days is mostly slim pickings.
And the longer these days last, the quicker bettors will have to learn how to stomach what’s placed in front of them.