Belarusian soccer? Bettors scramble for games amid U.S. coronavirus sports blackout

March 17, 2020, 10:54 AM UTC

The temporary halt  to the U.S. sports calendar has left gambling services scrambling to find something for clients to bet on.

DraftKings Inc. has heavily promoted sports like Mexican soccer and UFC, both of which were still holding events through last weekend, and the company did its first-ever fantasy politics offering, letting people pick whether Joe Biden would say “coronavirus” or whether Bernie Sanders would say “millionaire” or “billionaire” first. On Wednesday, DraftKings will run its largest-ever fantasy tournament around esports — competitive video gaming — one that carries a $60,000 prize. 

At William Hill Plc, bettors will see a lot of small-time soccer, maybe from countries they didn’t know existed. 

Joe Asher, chief executive officer of William Hill’s U.S. operations, rattled off the options: “It’s rugby. It’s Belarus Premier League. It’s Kazakhstan Premier League. The Ukraine’s got stuff going. Turkish soccer. Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Gibraltar, Kosovo, Serbia,” he said. “And I’m only scratching the surface.”

That’s how sportsbooks will cope until the coronavirus pandemic eases and U.S. leagues are allowed to resume. It’s a mix of offering odds on the few global sports still running and developing new opportunities — such as political wagers, assuming regulators allow them — all while prepping for whenever U.S. games go live again. 

That said, it will cost the industry tens of millions in dollars, pounds and euros, if not more. March Madness, the just-canceled NCAA college-basketball tournament, is a multimillion-dollar event at a company like William Hill, which operates over 114 sportsbooks in Nevada and takes bets in eight other states. Add in the suspended NBA and NHL seasons, the delay in the launch of baseball season, and the dozens of other events that either won’t happen or will be pushed into the future, and it’s a crushing blow.

“We’re not sharing numbers, but it’s pretty easy to say — there’s no sports, there’s no betting,” said DraftKings CEO Jason Robins.

Last year, Nevada sportsbooks made $329 million in revenue, excluding horse racing. In New Jersey, it was $299 million. 

The situation surrounding the coronavirus remains fluid. PointsBet spent time over the last week creating new products around Mexican soccer and Russian hockey, only to see both leagues later suspend play.  Now the company is exploring competitions like esports and chess, and expanding its offerings for the upcoming NFL season.

Bettors can now wager on each game in the Giants, Jets and Eagles 2020 schedule. PointsBet is also launching what it is calling “March Strangeness,” which will highlight a different obscure sport each day, including tutorials on how to bet on them. 

The coronavirus pandemic will affect betting operators in different ways. Those with large staffs and in-person business will likely feel it most. MGM Resorts International, for example, has closed all its Las Vegas properties. DraftKings is currently seeking regulatory approval for its $3.3 billion merger deal with a blank-check company, a process that Robins said would be unaffected. 

The impact will also vary state by state. New Jersey offers so-called iGaming, such as online blackjack, which DraftKings said saw a massive uptick in users this weekend. Each state has its own regulations as well, meaning some may approve more obscure sports, while others may reject them. 

On the whole, bettors can expect to see more creativity from sports operators — providing something to keep the lights on for the next few months and an enticement for people to keep money in their accounts.

Some customers are pulling out. Asher said William Hill had a 15% to 20% withdrawal rate among its Nevada clients, but that was less than he had expected. Robins said the total was lower at DraftKings. 

“I’m hoping we can have the games played in empty arenas soon to give people something to watch on television,” Asher said. “Obviously that’s self-serving and helpful to our business, but I also think it’s so important for the country to help us get through it. Sports plays a big role in that.”

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