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Sportsbooks and coronavirus cancellations: It’s gonna be ugly

One industry analyst says the dark March calendar could result in more than $500 million in lost sports bets in New Jersey alone.

Sportsbooks are going to be awfully lonely while America fights its way through Coronavirus restrictions and self-quarantines.
Sportsbooks are going to be awfully lonely while America fights its way through Coronavirus restrictions and self-quarantines.Read moreWayne Parry / AP

The main video wall in the sportsbook at Rivers Casino on Delaware Avenue had seven TVs going on Thursday afternoon.

Two had European soccer games on. One showed the Nets-Lakers game from two nights earlier. Another had the PGA’s Players Championship. There was a tennis match from 2019 being shown on one lower screen and the MLB Network breaking in with news about the cancellation of spring training on another.

The sportsbook was deserted. There were more TVs than people. And the people were more interesting.

“I wish they would just send me home,” said one bored waitress.

Rivers spent $15 million rebranding itself from SugarHouse, put $5 million alone into constructing a pretty impressive sportsbook. Never mind that most sports betting is done online these days. Sports books in March were the place to be.

But not this year.

“It’s eerily like 9/11” said Inquirer handicapper Vegas Vic after he and his wife cruised the Las Vegas Strip earlier in the week. “Everybody’s taking a hit no matter who you are.”

Sports betting enthusiasts will argue that this week in the college basketball schedule is the best of the year, even better than the NCAA Tournament, which was officially canceled on Thursday in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

“We refunded all conference tournament bets and any NCAA tourney bets. Personally, it’s sad. Horrible for the world.”

- Nick Bogdanovich, William Hill-US sports books

There were to be 165 games from Wednesday to Saturday as conference tournament championships were decided. March Madness, which most casual fans commonly use as a synonym for the NCAA tourney, has 67 games.

This is a pandemic, and everything is postponed now except for some golf, soccer, and darts. Yeah, darts.

“Even ESPN,” Vic said. “What are they going to do, run SportsCenter 24 hours a day?”

Sports betting analyst Jack Andrews was in Atlantic City, where the story was the same.

“Today was reminiscent of some of the darkest days when casinos were closing in 2015," he said. Sportsbook after sportsbook was a ghost town.

‘Brutal turn of events'

Last year was the first college basketball season since the Supreme Court opened sports betting outside of Nevada with a ruling in May 2018. New Jersey took in $372 million in sports bets (not just college hoops) in March 2019 and held $31.7 million in revenue, with $4.1 million going toward taxes.

Pennsylvania’s numbers were smaller — $44.5 million handle, $5.5 million hold, $2 million taxes — but not insignificant.

There will be virtually no betting from this March 11 until (if?) Major League Baseball, the NHL, and the NBA resume, so those numbers will plummet this year.

Andrews estimates New Jersey’s handle will be around $50 million to $70 million, which is a drop between 80 and 86% from March 2019.

But a fairer comparison, he said, would be to look at New Jersey’s handle for January 2020, when there were 10 NFL playoff games on the board leading up to the Feb. 2 Super Bowl.

“January is the month most similar to March in terms of revenue,” Andrews said. “January 2020 was $540 million, so I think March would have been close to that.”

Those numbers represent about a 90% drop counting both brick-and-mortar and online activity. “An absolute brutal turn of events,” Andrews said.

Sportsbooks spent most of Thursday giving out refunds for NCAA future bets (i.e. Villanova to win the championship), and monitoring what the pro leagues were going to do. Each suspended play.

“This is completely uncharted territory for everyone," said Mattias Stetz, the COO of Rust Street Interactive, which operates and New Jersey’s “Right now, we are trying to refund all wagers placed on games that have been canceled or postponed indefinitely. We have no idea how long this shutdown will last.”

So let’s all take a hiatus for a few weeks. And if you really are thinking of betting on darts, donate to the Red Cross or Philabundance instead.

“I knew it was bad,” one lonely sports betting teller said on Thursday. “But I never thought it would affect my job.”