For professional sports entertainment businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic is unfamiliar terrain. The same goes for sportsbook operators. One of the uncharted elements is games in empty stadiums.
Although it’s hard to quantify exactly how much that element will affect lines on sporting events moving forward, it will likely play a role. The extent to which it’s a factor will vary based on other circumstances, however.
The empty stadiums effect is hard to quantify
To date, NASCAR and UFC have resumed events without spectators physically in attendance in North America. Bundesliga, the top level of men’s club soccer in Germany, will do the same later this month.
Jason Scott, VP of Trading at ROAR Digital, which operates BetMGM, doesn’t think that lines on those North American events will see much movement because of the plans.
“Both NASCAR and UFC events will lack atmosphere without fans but I don’t foresee there being any effect on performance and result,” Scott commented. “We aren’t seeing this as a factor that will change how we set lines for either of these events.”
For Bundesliga and other team sports, however, it could be a legitimate factor. Scott offers some insight into how much that could be.
“Statistics from all sports globally outline that teams perform better at home than away,” Scott explained. “The reasons range from comfort in surroundings, lack of travel and living in normal routine to fan support. Statistics from all sports show that home teams do receive a better run with officials. Officials are human and the roar of the crowd does have a subconscious effect. A line in NBA depending on matchup will move three to six points depending on home-court advantage. The lack of fans takes two to four points off this advantage.”
Nick Bogdanovich, William Hill US Director of Trading, is more hesitant to quantify exactly how much athletes playing without crowd noise will affect lines.
“I don’t know how much a home-field means in soccer,” Bogdanovich stated. “I think one thing that will be interesting going forward is listening to the coaches’ and players’ comments right away. They are heading into uncharted waters too. You have to factor in rust as well. These guys have been off for so long. When they come back if there’s a low-scoring game, do you attribute that to the fact that they haven’t played in forever? Is it because there are no fans in the stands to create juice and energy? I don’t know.”
How prevalent will the empty stadiums effect become?
Other ventures like MLB and the NBA are considering similar paths right now. MLB is reportedly sending a proposal for beginning its 2020 season to the MLB Player’s Association sometime this week.
The benefit for such leagues in playing in empty stadiums, if they can get athletes to agree to the terms, is a quicker path to live games. Ensuring they will receive television revenues, even if they sacrifice stadium revenues in the process, is the lesser of two evils right now.
Plans might include using a handful of neutral sites to get back into action as quickly as possible. That is another factor that sportsbooks might have to account for.
The disparity in local and state regulations regarding COVID-19
There are a few factors beyond the control of sports leagues like whether local and state authorities will relax stay-at-home orders enough to allow athletes to train. Some athletes and teams may gain access to such opportunities before others.
For example, Missouri Governor Mike Parson has given clearance to resume mass events like concerts. That statewide directive is trumped by more local restrictions, however, such as those currently ongoing in Kansas City, MO that still bar such events.
That’s another factor sportsbook operators have to take into account. Bogdanovich and Scott seem to be of the same mind in that it’s hard to quantify that effect into lines for games involving athletes/teams who have disparities between them in this regard.
“I think it is a factor but I’m not sure it will be binary,” said Scott. “Some teams that will seem to be disadvantaged by the restrictions will be prepared better than others with ‘looser’ restrictions. It’s not an element that we will give much credence to.”
“A lot of these games could be at neutral sites, which could actually be helpful for us in the beginning,” Bogdanovich added. “We won’t have to factor for familiarity with the site and things like that. It’s going to be a major learning curve. Some teams may be more fit than others. The phrase, we’re in uncharted waters, really spills into the sports betting aspect of things.”
Why bettors could be just as in the dark as sportsbooks
Just because sportsbooks are uncertain about how to proceed doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be a prime opportunity for bettors to cash in, however. Bettors attempting to handicap contests with these factors in play will face the same challenges.
Using MLB as an example, suppose baseball resumes without spectators in a handful of venues in Florida. Many teams normally spend their springs in those venues.
If you’re sizing up a Washington Nationals game at FITTEAM Ballpark in West Palm Beach, for instance, do you give Washington a home-field edge in such a contest because the Nationals are playing in their Spring Training stadium? Even if so, how much of an edge, as they aren’t usually playing games there during the summer?
As Bogdanovich alluded to, everyone involved is figuring this situation out as they go along. There may be some opportunities but adjusting models looks like it will be more of a guessing game than a hard science moving forward.