The sports betting industry is bracing for mass headaches and confusion in what could begin a historic period of chaotic wagering. A significant number of professional and collegiate athletes have tested positive for the coronavirus over the past month, raising more questions than answers surrounding the return of U.S. team sports.
In fact, about 6,000 miles away from Las Vegas, on the coast of the Black Sea, we recently witnessed the seed of a potential betting controversy that may bloom into a full-blown plant stateside.
The reason? Six players on FC Rostov of the Russia Premier League tested positive for COVID-19 a few days before a match and so all 42 coaches, starters and second-stringers went into mandatory quarantine. Rostov petitioned FC Sochi to reschedule the match, but Sochi declined, and Rostov was forced to field its youth team -- which hadn't practiced since March and was relegated to schooling via Zoom.
This news didn't reach odds provider Don Best until game day, and only thanks to Reddit and other online forums. Around 7:30 a.m. PT, Don Best alerted all subscribers. Naturally, the betting market scrambled, with the spread reposting from PK to favoring Sochi by 4.5 goals and the total increasing from 2.5 to 4.5 goals.
How should events like this be handled in the gambling world? And should there be some sort of pandemic policy on wagers?
Grading the FC Sochi-FC Rostov match
Sochi predictably dominated the Rostov team of teenagers, 10-1. But it was certainly interesting that the original wagers of PK all cashed.
"We just graded the game as is. It's written in the house rules. It's a game," Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook vice president of oddsmaking and risk management Ed Salmons told ESPN.
BetOnline, an offshore sportsbook based in Panama, which has customers from across the globe, also graded the soccer match as action but received only about 20 total wagers.
"If it were a bigger event, honestly, I can't tell you how we'd handle it," BetOnline brand manager Dave Mason said. "Hopefully it's not going to happen [in higher-profile sports] ... but we have to prepare for it. Players going down. Teams going down. Forfeits. How do you handle that? It's going to be a challenge."
Within the past few weeks, the UFC and PGA have seamlessly adjusted to fighters, cornermen, golfers and caddies testing positive for COVID-19. The UFC canceled a bout or, if enough time allowed, replaced the opponent. The golfers withdrew from the tournament, even if just the caddie tested positive. Sportsbooks have been able to lean on preexisting policies: All wagers are refunded if a fighter or golfer does not start an event. However, in the case of Nick Watney testing positive before the second round of the RBC Heritage, his betting futures were the victim of bad luck and considered losers.
The individual nature of these sports allows for the UFC, PGA and betting world to adjust fairly easily. But what happens if/when this situation arises in major American team sports, once they return?
Salmons, with his three decades of experience, isn't too concerned, likening the Russian soccer example to situations that have already happened in major sports. "We deal with the NBA, and this is literally the exact same thing as the soccer stuff," he noted. "Just like the NFL with Weeks 16 and 17 when teams start resting players or preseason games when information gets out."
Salmons also referenced a preseason NFL game last summer. The Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders played on an 80-yard field because of a questionable patch of grass at Winnipeg's IG Stadium. Once news trickled out, the total moved up about five points. "Nowhere is it written in our rules that the field has to be 100 yards, so all bets were action. We run across these weird things from time to time. Everything reverts back to house rules. If you meet the criteria of the house rules, it's a bet," Salmons said.
Changing house rules?
In MLB betting, bettors have the option of "listing" the starting pitcher(s) when placing a wager. So, if you are laying -300 with Gerrit Cole, you have the option to list the ace when wagering on the New York Yankees. If he is a late scratch, your ticket is refunded regardless of the game's outcome.
"I suppose the framework could be created. What does that mean, though?" Circa Sportsbook manager Chris Bennett told ESPN. "Say you list Mahomes and they run some gadget play on the first play from scrimmage and Tyreek Hill takes the first snap. Does that mean your bet is voided because Mahomes didn't take the first snap? Details like that are kind of messy."
Bennett added that Circa's current software, which several other books also use, only allows for MLB betting to list players but a "workaround" is possible yet tedious.
Salmons agrees that further listing of players would create logistical headaches and unnecessary betting permutations. After all, simple wagers are more likely to generate steady two-sided action. "That just becomes such a nightmare. If we could, we would not do starting pitchers," Salmons said. "If the Lakers rest Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Danny Green and seven guys with the expanded roster, they essentially could be starting an under-18 team. The spread could go from Lakers -5 to the other team -12.5. But it's a bet."
This level mindset makes sense. Sportsbooks are essentially protected, thanks to two-sided action from the betting public. In the event of a roster overhaul on game day, the sportsbooks avoid significant exposure because they will have so much money on each side -- and then again once they post the new odds. The situation is actually pretty regular, just as long as the books adjust the odds with the market. But the same cannot be said for bettors, who mostly only wager on one side of an outcome.
Books not budging
A bettor's ability to list certain players would create a distinct disadvantage for the house. For example, if someone bets the Chiefs -7 over the Raiders and lists Mahomes, the bettor is protected from a worst-case scenario in which Mahomes is scratched and the new line is drastically lower. But if Raiders QB Derek Carr is unable to play, then that bettor has excellent line value. "It's completely lopsided in favor of the bettor because who is going to make a huge bet that's action that you're not listing anything but is locking in a price," Bennett said.
Bettors already face uncertainty with last-minute injuries and other randomness -- that comes with the territory. A large component of today's betting culture is a race for information. However, the coronavirus is vastly different, as bettors can't get ahead of a COVID-19 test result for game day and the results are so unpredictable due to the virus' asymptomatic traits. Should gamblers just wait for that concrete information and remove numerous unknowns? The issue is that would mean forgoing an opportunity to beat significant market moves, which is so critical to a bettor's success.
"I just don't think it's going to be that different than the normal NBA season. Sometimes [late scratches] go with you. Sometimes it goes against you. It's not going to deter me," professional bettor Erin Rynning told ESPN, while sharing his confidence and faith in the NBA's ability to execute a safe bubble.
New NBA protocol implies that players could be tested as often as daily during this resumption. If a player has a confirmed positive test, he must undergo treatment and rest for at least 14 days without exercising. In order to return, the player must pass cardiac exams and also test negative for the coronavirus twice in a 24-hour period.
Logistically, the NBA and NHL just might be able to pull off their respective bubbles. Personally, I am optimistic. Only a handful of regular season games remain, and the playoffs are a relatively short period of time. Every 10-14 days, half of the remaining teams will be eliminated and return home. And one could argue the final contenders will consist of focused players adhering to strict social-distancing guidelines.
However, a four-month NFL regular season with much larger rosters scattered throughout the country without a bubble presents a stronger likelihood of positive test results.
"I think the world in the NFL is going to be much more difficult to pull off," Rynning said. "There's going to be a scenario for sure where you have five guys test positive on a Friday before a game. If you get burned once or twice [on wagers], you're going to reevaluate."
Where we stand
As of now, bookmakers do not envision any policy changes, citing the unique nature of the Russian soccer news.
"With our media and Twitter, it's really rare when you're blindsided by something like that," Salmons said. "You'll usually hear whispers. It's hard to keep something covered for a long period of time. Once one person finds out and any money goes somewhere, you're going to be aware of it. If you're not, then that's on you."
That sounds fair and reasonable. For now. But we have yet to experience a positive test from a superstar during the NBA playoffs, a high-profile quarterback or even an entire football position group. Additionally, some athletes have voiced apprehension to suiting up, fearing it might disrupt any positive momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement and real change toward racial injustice. That could also lead to last-minute lineup changes.
A return of team sports stateside will undoubtedly add an entirely new layer to sports betting. Sportsbooks are highly unlikely to introduce new provisions, but more bettors will probably end up waiting until final coronavirus test results before placing a wager.