Needless to say, the human toll of the COVID-19 crisis takes precedence above all else. The impact of the pandemic on every corner of the economy is also impossible to ignore.
Sports was one of the industries that arguably suffered some of the earliest damage.
The cancellation of a March 11 NBA matchup between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was the proverbial first domino to fall. By that weekend, the NHL, MLS, MLB and NCAA were among those that joined professional hoops in canceling or postponing seasons or prominent events.
The XFL was initially part of that group. A few weeks later, the league permanently succumbed to the “new normal” in an unexpected collapse.
Meanwhile, the related industries that enhanced the popularity and enjoyment of the games and tournaments are also suffering.
What follows is a snapshot of how some of these different entities are attempting to manage the disruption.
The regulated sportsbook
Where do companies that fully rely on sports betting turn to when the majority of those opportunities disappear overnight?
“As sport cancellations and postponements started to occur mid-March, the team quickly shifted focus from plans as they stood toward brainstorming on how to create excitement and encourage betting in the absence of mainstream sports,” said Patrick Eichner, the director of communications for PointsBet USA. The sportsbook already has a presence in New Jersey, Indiana and Iowa.
“We ultimately launched a campaign dubbed ‘March Strangeness’ featuring daily educational videos, boosted odds and promotions for clients to highlight the perhaps more obscure or lower-level sports still ongoing,” said Eichner.
Facing an immediate inventory void, Eichner explains PointsBet’s team moved quickly toward streamlining the company’s portion of the regulatory process required for adding bets on new leagues and sporting events.
One of those new wagering options has paid quick dividends.
“Table tennis seems to be the popular choice for bettors in the COVID-19 sports world,” Eichner said. “Believe it or not, daily table tennis handle has been comparable to that of a golf major.”
Betting related to major sports hasn’t completely fallen off a cliff, either. PointsBet had heavy activity for 2020 NFL Draft markets and is currently seeing it to a similar degree for its NFL 2020 season player props. Action on team-specific futures for the NFL and an MLB seasons — that everyone is still hoping will unfold in some form — has also been brisk.
Customers won’t have to wait until a possible summertime opening day to get a baseball sweat. The operator offered wagers on the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) preseason games and will do the same for the 10-team league’s regular-season that just kicked off Tuesday.
As a primary conduit of PointsBet’s public messaging, Eichner helped spearhead efforts to quickly develop a cohesive strategy for handling pending futures wagers on suspended or canceled sports. An integral part of keeping its customers informed, a comprehensive COVID-19 landing page lays out the company’s plans and details enhanced futures and prop bet offerings.
Naturally, the hope is the profitable pillars of the sports betting space are back up and running sooner rather than later. But Eichner emphasizes, PointsBet remains focused on being as nimble as possible, irrespective of what the coming weeks and months bring.
“As an operator, the answer right now is to simply control what we can control and put ourselves in the best position possible to be ready for the next opportunity,” Eichner said. “If the UFC, PGA and others are able to proceed as recent plans suggested, that’s great news and something we’ll be ready to capitalize on. If not, and schedules need to change, that is OK, also – we’ll be ready for whenever the time is right.”
The bet-friendly sports league
Then there’s the first professional sports league casualty of the health pandemic.
The “2.0” version of the XFL had five weeks’ worth of games in the books and a wave of momentum before announcing the suspension of the season on March 12.
At that point, the news wasn’t considered catastrophic. The league publicly emphasized that it was looking forward to returning in 2021 and playing “future years” as well. Considering owner Vince McMahon had initially pledged to fund the XFL for a minimum of three seasons, the statement rang true to both fans and league employees.
That made the events of April 10 a particularly bitter and surprising pill to swallow.
The day started with XFL president and COO Jeffrey Pollack holding a unilateral conference call with league administrative staff in which he issued a collective pink slip that no one saw coming. One former employee summed up the extent of the blindsiding by confirming to The Lines things had been going “full steam” in their department right up to that morning, even with games no longer being played.
The initial verbiage used in both the call and a public statement described the league as “suspending operations.” But subsequent reports citing unnamed league sources alleged there were no plans for a 2021-or-later return.
Any remaining hope of survival was then extinguished with a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing on April 13. The league and its trademarks are up for sale as part of those proceedings. Matters have unraveled to the point that former commissioner Oliver Luck — now confirmed as the first official layoff on April 9 — is suing McMahon for wrongful termination.
The loss of the 2020 iteration of the league also has multiple sports betting ramifications.
To begin with, the XFL’s version of spring pro football proved to be significantly more popular compared to last year’s short-lived entrant, the AAF (Alliance of American Football). Week 1 of XFL handle was 20 times that of the entire seven-week 2019 AAF season.
The XFL was arguably also the first major sports league to engage in a full-on embrace of legal sports betting. Talk of point spreads and over/under totals, not to mention constant graphics regarding the same, were prominent during the league’s pregame shows and national broadcasts on FOX, ABC and ESPN.
And, the league was a pioneer among its pro sports counterparts on another front.
A month prior to its February kickoff, the XFL entered into an agreement with respected sports data company, Genius Sports, to formulate an integrity program pertaining to all aspects of betting on its games.
The fantasy sports analysis site
Now in its 23rd year, fantasy sports/sports betting site RotoWire has seen a thing or two, albeit, nothing quite like the current environment.
The company Northwestern alums Peter Schoenke, Herb Ilk and Jeff Erickson co-founded back in 1997 now has a reach in the fantasy sports realm more expansive than many of its subscribers might realize.
In addition to the robust offerings on its site, RotoWire, which this article’s author also contributes to, has developed myriad content syndication agreements over the years with a Who’s Who of the sports landscape: ESPN, Yahoo, NFL.com, DraftKings and FanDuel are among their industry partners.
The abrupt shutoff of the sports spigot created the potential for serious implications. However, the company has endured a pair of NBA and NHL lockouts apiece during its life span, among other challenges. Weathering these storms gave RotoWire a degree of veteran savviness that’s proving critical during the current state of affairs.
“We had been preparing for potential systemic disruptions for the fantasy sports industry over the next few years, as the most important risk factor was in play — the major sports leagues’ labor agreements,” Schoenke said.
Ironically, the NFL— the fantasy sports and sports betting proverbial cash cow — achieved labor peace for the next decade just before mass disruption unfolded. Yet, RotoWire’s propensity for contingency planning still comes in handy.
“Our main focus has been to use the time wisely to work on projects and programming that can benefit us when sports resume,” Schoenke said.
The lack of games means the company’s DFS and sports betting strategy articles are largely on hiatus (except for esports and the Korean Baseball Organization).
CoverWire — its sports betting odds aggregator sister site — is also much quieter these days. Nevertheless, RotoWire’s heavy focus on player news, notes and rumors, along with those industry partnerships, are keeping its plate relatively full for the time being.
Schoenke said, “People are still drafting teams and playing fantasy sports and still need to analyze players.”
RotoWire is facilitating that in various ways. Through expert overviews of how the current shutdown is affecting injured NBA or MLB stars, for example, or how a shortened baseball season might accelerate a prominent prospect’s ascension to the majors.
RotoWire also remains steady due to the timing of the current stoppage of major league play. The all-important NFL season is months away and, therefore, remains on track for the moment, and the proximity of the NFL Draft helped provide the company with relevant, current material to discuss on its Sirius XM show. Meanwhile, the NBA and NHL postseasons, which remain in limbo, are not particularly pertinent to company revenue.
The sports betting media company
The Vegas Sports and Information Network (VSiN) officially went on air Feb. 5, 2017, as “the first multi-platform broadcasting company dedicated to delivering news, analysis and proprietary data to the millions of Americans who take part in (the) multibillion-dollar sports betting industry.”
Pre-dating the widespread legalization of sports betting in the US by more than a year, VSIN was ahead of its time.
Yet, as of March 12, their aforementioned mission statement became, for the moment, largely obsolete.
Just as sportsbooks had to pivot when there were suddenly few familiar wagering options, the sports betting-centric network had precious little time to get creative in filling countless hours of air time.
“Luckily, we have a great team of producers and crew behind the scenes that helps keep the content flowing,” said Danny Burke, the VSIN producer/host.
“The main areas we’ve focused on have been the NFL Draft and the futures department throughout the NFL, CFB and MLB, for the most part. There’s a lot of adversity to deal with, but I think overall, it will benefit us in the end in the sense of expanding our creativity.”
Like PointsBet and the other sportsbooks, VSIN, frequently referenced for its slew of on-air content, the network is looking forward to implementing the lessons learned in recent weeks under much more normalized conditions.
When teams are back playing games that count, Burke envisions a significant sports betting resurgence.
“The thirst for sports, and some betting action to go along with it, is at an all-time high,” he said. “There will be record handles set for the NFL Draft, and people are wagering on video games. So, just imagine how much action there will be when one of the four major US sports returns.”
The economic hardship that has obliterated discretionary spending for many could lead to a drop in overall handle from the general betting public. But Burke predicts the sharps will help carry the load in the interim.
“The professionals will be back in action, and if people are betting on international soccer and esports now, just imagine how much more they’ll bet on sports they’re actually familiar with,” Burke said.