Fall without football would require sports betting industry to get creative

All this week, USA TODAY Sports will examine the possibility of a fall without football, and what that would mean in a country where the sport is king.

The disruption of the sports calendar has affected all types of fans, particularly those who like to have some action on the games.

In March, when the coronavirus spread and sports shut down, bettors and the gambling industry looked ahead to the promise of the football season as a reprieve. But now a fall without football, or with seasons being delayed or disrupted, is a possibility and sports books and states that benefit from tax revenue are getting creative in an attempt to keep bettors engaged and the money flowing. 

In Nevada, the birthplace of legalized sports betting in the U.S., sports books won $329 million from $5.3 billion in wagers last year – both records, according to the state’s gaming control board. Football, between college and the NFL, generated $122 million of sports book revenue and accounted for $1.8 billion in wagers, both records as well.

USA TODAY Sports explores the implications of our biggest sport being sidelined because of the coronavirus in this week's Fall Without Football series. (Photo: USA TODAY)

No other sport represented a larger percentage of win and wagering than football. Behind football, college and pro basketball accounted for 31% of wagers and 28% of sports book winnings. Plus football gambling drives tourism.

“Although it can’t be accurately quantified, customers who wager on sports including football will also generate increased gaming spend in slots and tables,” Nevada gaming control board senior research analyst Michael Lawton wrote in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. “Additionally, sports betting benefits the entire hospitality industry in Nevada due to induced spending by customers on hotel rooms, restaurants, bars, night clubs, entertainment and shopping to name a few.”

The sports book at the Bellagio Resort and Casino in Las Vegas has been set up for social distancing. (Photo: Ethan Miller, Getty Images)

Jay Kornegay, executive vice president of operations for SuperbookUSA, which services Las Vegas casinos sports books such as the Westgate, said losing football could impact gambling habits across the board, even if other major pro sports salvage their seasons in 2020.

“I don’t care what business you’re in, you take away 38% of it, it’s a devastating blow,” he said. “And in this case, it could have a rippling effect on other sports as people might get disinterested in other sports as well.”

However, the large sports books should be able to weather the storm, said Dustin Gouker, sports betting analyst for PlayUSA.com. The same goes for operations in states with robust access to mobile betting, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Indiana and Nevada.

For example, New Jersey had a handle of $165 million with $1.6 million going to the state in June, both increases on June 2019. Part of that could be attributed to sports books, such as FanDuel, getting creative in attracting bettors.

“Even if there isn’t football, there's a lot of fun things we can do and entertain people and help give them diversion, particularly in a, frankly, challenging time,” said Mike Raffensperger, FanDuel’s chief marketing officer. “Obviously, our revenue isn’t where we expected it to be without major American sports on television, our active player base isn’t that far off, just because we’ve been offering these alternate game formats.”

FanDuel rolled out betting lines for politics, reality television shows and for esports. Players can guess the over/under on the high temperature in Phoenix or the amount of times Kanye West tweets over a 24-hour period.

At the sports book, “secondary and tertiary sports,” as Raffensperger put it have “really blossomed in this period.” The most popular sport to bet on the sports book since the pandemic began is international table tennis.

Other international sporting events such as European soccer and Korean baseball have also proven popular, as has golf. Each of the past two PGA Tour stops have doubled the amount of bets placed on FanDuel’s online sportsbook for the 2019 U.S. Open, the company said.

Colorado launched legal sports betting on May 1, six weeks after the pandemic halted sports. Four operators were active, and five others have since started operations. Dan Hartman, the Colorado Division of Gaming director, said as many 26 operators are lining up to go live in the state. Some companies on the wait list have pushed back their launch efforts due to the lack of volume and revenue, Hartman said.

“Our numbers have been OK. I think they’ve far-exceeded what we thought they would be without the major sports,” he said. “Obviously, as time goes on without the major sports, it’s probably going to take its toll.”

Legislators in Colorado legalized sports gambling not long after voters approved it in November. The revenue generated from the state’s 10% tax rate on net sports betting proceeds is supposed to help fund the Colorado Water Plan, a $40 billion project to provide critical water needs across the state. The bill’s fiscal note estimated $8.9-$10.4 million in revenue for fiscal year 2020-21 based on an anticipated $1.3-$1.5 billion in total amount wagered.

The revenue estimate was decreased in December to $1.5 million to $1.7 million, and the figure will likely have to be adjusted again with no football, Hartman said.

Like FanDuel, Colorado has mitigated the effect of the pandemic working with vendors to debut a robust catalog of betting options, including the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4. A blueprint of gambling during a fall wihtout football is there, but there is no making up for football.

“Without that,” Hartman said, “it’d be a while before we get back to normal.”

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

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