With the postponement of the NBA, MLB, NHL, PGA Tour, college sports and just about anything else you can think of due to COVID-19, the sports betting industry is in limbo. Indiana posted a record handle of more than $187 million in February, but that number plummeted to $26.3 million in April.
While that’s a massive drop, $26.3 million is still a significant figure considering the lack of conventional sports at the moment. So what are people betting on?
The NFL Draft was in April, and interest was high. Nick Bogdanovich, Director of Trading at William Hill, estimated Nevada’s handle to be around five times bigger than previous years. But bookmakers have had to get creative in these unprecedented times. Russian table tennis, eSports, Korean baseball and obscure soccer and basketball leagues are among the events being offered, and they’ve had varying degrees of interest – but Russian table tennis has been a big winner in the short term.
“It has been the big hit by a country mile,” Bogdanovich told BetIndiana News. “Number of dollars, number of tickets written, it’s been the most popular.”
Will interest prevail in the U.S. once regular sports return?
“We’ll keep offering it, but it’s tough to say. Just because of the time difference, I’m not so sure,” he said.
South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews says his shop isn’t going anywhere near these unorthodox events.
“I ran it by (South Point owner) Michael Gaughan,” Andrews told BetIndiana News. “He didn’t want to do it, and I didn’t put up any argument. That was fine with me. One less worry for me. He didn’t want do it, and I didn’t make a case for it.”
Added Robert Walker, director of sportsbook operations at U.S. Bookmaking, “We don’t want the book Russian table tennis. It’s not our market, we don’t understand it. We have partners that we’re responsible for their wins and losses, and it would be hard for me to say we lost $20,000 on something that I really didn’t understand.”
A deeper look into eSports, meanwhile, suggests it may be the most likely candidate to sustain long-term betting interest due to its significant audience beforehand. The global eSports betting market is expected to reach $17.2 billion by the end of 2020, according to Wholesale Investor.
And the lockdown has helped pique interest. In mid-March, eSports betting operator Luckbox reported a 54 percent upswing in new player registrants following cancellation of the English Premier League.
Steam, a cloud-based gaming library, has also seen a massive recent spike in users.
When there is heavy intrigue for a particular event, betting interest typically follows.
“Second tier eSports titles such as Rocket League, FIFA, F1 Esports and Call of Duty have all seen traffic increases of over 200 percent throughout the platform over the past two weeks,” Tom Wade, CEO of eSports betting operator SickOdds, told EsportsInsider “This acts as a great catalyst and ‘gateway drug’ into eSports and the betting that comes with it.”
eSports is poised to become a more significant part of the U.S. betting landscape as well, according to bookmakers who have spoken recently with BetIndiana News.
“We’ve always been a big fan of eSports and think it’s really important,” said. “We think it’s going to come ultimately, it’s such a big demographic.”
Westgate SuperBook vice president of race and sports Jay Kornegay said he plans to offer eSports as they become approved by Nevada gaming regulators.
Sam Richmond, assistant manager of Bleacher Report Betting, has tried various things to keep his audience engaged sans traditional sports. Among the most successful? A live Madden stream on Twitch.
“One of them got over 40,000 viewers. It was nuts, people are getting really into those sims,” Richmond said. “Does it last once regular sports return? Tough to say. Maybe not at that scale, but you’d have to think at least a chunk of these people will stick with eSports well past this.”
While it’s hard to predict much of anything these days, it feels safe to say that eSports is gaining steam. How much? That remains to be seen. But if you’ve had the urge to bet on eNASCAR or League of Legends lately, know that you’re not alone.