Coronavirus pandemic puts sports world (and betting) on hold


The sports world is often considered to exist in a parallel universe from real-world problems, but it was dealt a double dose of reality on Wednesday and Thursday with the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament and the suspension of the NBA and NHL seasons among others due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This has also had wide-spread implications for the fledgling legalized sports betting industry which was looking forward to the start of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (aka March Madness) next week with the number of states taking bets up to 16 with Illinois and Michigan joining the action this week.

“I cannot recall anytime ever something like this happening in so many sports,” longtime Vegas oddsmaker Kenny White. “Obviously we’ve had strikes in different sports — the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball — to shut down seasons but nothing to run over [to multiple sports].”

Nevada sportsbooks won $36.5 million from basketball bettors last March from a total of $498.7 million in bets, according to the state’s Gaming Control Board. Nevada doesn’t separate college and pro basketball from its figures, but GBC senior research analyst Michael Lawton estimates 70 percent of that handle is on March Madness, or around $349 million.

New Jersey reported a March Madness handle of $106 million last year with a win of $10 million. With the growth of the industry the past year, those figures certainly were expected to increase.

Many bettors, especially novices, have been learning the past two days about “house rules” that determine if bets have action or not. All advance wagers on conference tournament games that were scheduled for Thursday are graded “no-action” and refunded.

The lone exception was the first half of the St. John’s-Creighton game in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, which inexplicably played the first 20 minutes before being postponed at halftime with St. John’s leading 38-35. The side/total/money-line wagers for the game were no-action, but first-half bettors on St. John’s %plussign% 3 and Over 70¹/₂ were graded winners while Creighton -3 and Under 70¹/₂ were graded losers.

All future wagers on canceled conference tournaments should be refunded, and that also goes for NCAA Tournament futures.

The NBA and NHL seasons have been suspended until further notice, with the start of the MLB season being delayed.

The XFL canceled its season, and the PGA announced it would be canceling the next three events on the PGA Tour schedule: the Valspar Championship, the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and the Valero Texas Open. The Masters will be postponed, it was announced on Friday.

The house rules for those are more complicated. The simplest to explain is that odds to win those respective season championships are still alive as long as a championship series is held this year, the same would go for wagers such as MVP and Rookie of the Year (which have both been getting a lot of action this year in the NBA). Division and conference odds will depend on if the leagues declare winners of those titles.

The wagers that are most up in the air at this point are NBA Over/Under season wins and NHL Over/Under season points props. Most sportsbook house rules declare that the full schedule (82 for each) must be played for action, otherwise all of those bets would be refunded. That includes ones in which a team has “clinched” the Over or Under (though some books will still pay off on those, so please check with your own book).

MLB is a little different as many books give a little wiggle room for rainouts, with only 160 games required, but we’re a long way from finding out if MLB will make up the postponed games or play a shortened season (again, check with our own book if you’ve made any of these types of wagers).

This unwelcome version of March Madness started Wednesday afternoon when NCAA president Mark Emmert announced that NCAA Tournament games would be held in arena without fans. That was followed by similar announcements that big conferences would hold their respective tournaments without fans starting Thursday.

When everyone was thinking the news couldn’t get any worse, the NBA announced at 9:30 p.m. ET that it was suspending the season in the wake of Jazz center Rudy Gobert testing positive for coronavirus.

On Thursday, the conference tournaments, the beginning of the baseball season and other leagues went by the wayside.

“I’ve been in the business for 40 years and this is brand new to me,” said Tony Miller, director of race & sports at the Golden Nugget. “It’s just a crazy time and we’re trying to deal with it hour to hour like everyone else.”