What Happens to Gambling When Sports Shut Down?

The cancellation of major events has left stadiums empty and casinos closed.

A collage of images illustrating various issues related to gambling.
Adeshola Makinde

Springtime is typically full of so many sporting events that fans find themselves spoiled for choice—March Madness Cinderella runs, playoffs in basketball and ice hockey, the first home runs of baseball season, and the final matches of European soccer. The summer is peppered with major golf and tennis tournaments, the grueling slog of the Tour de France, and, this year, what would have been the Olympics in Japan. The coronavirus pandemic has ended, or postponed, all of this, bringing major sports (and most of the world) to a near standstill. For fans, it has left a yawning hole in their daily routines, but for the gamblers who watch and wager, it is a double blow.

“There are so many things going usually to keep entertained,” Ryan Metivier, a sports bettor who lives outside of Toronto, told me, “and then suddenly, nothing.” Metivier generally gambles on National Football League games and soccer, and some hockey, tennis, and basketball, but the sports drought has left him, like many others, looking further afield for a bit of action—considerably further.

At first he tuned in to Mexican soccer, before officials suspended play, then he turned to Australian rules football. The sport, a chaotic-looking scramble across a huge pitch, was new to him, but he quickly took a liking to it, before it too was halted. Metivier, who works as a writer and an editor at a sports-betting publication, finally shifted his attention to Tajikistan. The landlocked central Asian nation is one of a handful that have no reported cases of the coronavirus, and this month, its top division of soccer kicked off in an empty stadium. “I’d never heard of that country, but it’s out there and they are playing,” Metivier said. (Gambling on far-afield leagues presented some new challenges, he learned, notably being able to track down reports for scouting teams and matchups. “I would love to go nuts on it, but it is kind of hard to get too much information.”) After a bit of research, he put down a bet, which turned out to be a winner—though he did not actually watch the full match itself: “Setting my alarm at 7 o’clock to watch Tajikistan soccer was where I drew the line.”

Sports and gambling are intimately intertwined, now more so than ever. Long a feature of match days in places such as Britain, sports betting was expedited to the American mainstream after a 2018 Supreme Court decision cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting. Apps make it convenient, and professional leagues have struck deals with betting companies, breaking the status quo that lasted for decades. The United States had been predicted to soon become the largest sports-betting market in the world. Instead, the cancellation of major events has left stadiums empty and casinos closed in what the Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay recently called “nothing less than the most seismic disruption in the history of sports.”

One event that has remained operational during the pandemic is Hong Kong’s regular set of horse races, which started in the 1840s and have a fanatical following in the gambling-obsessed city, serving as a barometer of stability and prosperity. “Horses will still run, stocks will still sizzle, dancers will still dance,” the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously promised prior to Britain’s handover of Hong Kong in 1997, as a way to placate those nervous about Beijing’s impending rule. Last year, 2.2 million people attended races, placing bets worth $16.1 billion, according to figures from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which oversees the territory’s races. The club is Hong Kong’s largest taxpayer, and the city’s newspapers see a 30 percent boost in sales before race day as bettors scour the guides for tips, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the chief executive of the club, told me.

Like much of Hong Kong, the jockey club learned from the city’s experience with the SARS epidemic in 2003. Following that outbreak, the club formed a pandemic response team, which was activated shortly after news of a mystery virus originating in Wuhan began to surface at the beginning of the year. In the weeks that followed, the club closed its offtrack betting sites that dot the city and limited attendance at its Chinese New Year race, its most popular annual event, to about 8,000 people, less than a tenth of the usual number of spectators. Further restrictions put in place by the government led to what Engelbrecht-Bresges described as a “ghost meeting,” with no fans and only a skeleton staff in attendance.

Many of the jockey club’s employees live near its racecourse in the outlying area of Sha Tin, one of two tracks it owns and operates in the city. The club implemented strict procedures for entry and exit to its sites, and instituted temperature checks. Deliveries had to be dropped outside a cordoned-off area. “We created a bubble,” Engelbrecht-Bresges told me. Spouses and family members who lived with employees—whose jobs could bring them into contact with infected people—were moved into separate accommodations, paid for by the club. As Hong Kong residents rushed to purchase face masks and as the international supply chain tightened, the club’s procurement team was given a simple order, Engelbrecht-Bresges said: “Do everything you can, globally.” Private planes were rented to pick up face masks sourced from abroad.

The measures, according to Engelbrecht-Bresges, have proved effective: No staff members have fallen ill, and the lack of sporting events worldwide has put the Hong Kong races in a fortuitous position, able to provide gamblers with an event when supply is low. “Definitely that has accelerated our growth,” he said, noting a boost in overseas betting that has largely offset the downturn domestically. Betting turnover has fallen about 3 to 5 percent, a figure Engelbrecht-Bresges seems just fine with. “It’s amazing in this type of circumstance,” he said.

Others—both gamblers and the companies that court them—have not been so fortunate. Take the betting operator William Hill, which has been forced to furlough hundreds of staff. “Without sports, there is no sports betting,” Joe Asher, the chief executive of the company’s U.S. arm, told me. “We’ve got our guys scouring the globe trying to find sports that we can offer.” The search has turned up some obscure alternatives, among them Russian table tennis (the country has a professional league that is still operating). This month, a gambler put down a $900 bet on a parlay of six such matches and collected nearly $19,000 in winnings. Another hit a nine-game parlay, turning $2 into slightly more than $1,400. Part of the popularity of Russian table tennis, Asher said, is likely due to the familiarity of the sport, a staple of bitter sibling rivalries played out in basements and heated rec-center tournaments. “Not on the level of the NBA by any stretch,” he told me, “but everyone knows Ping-Pong.”

Nick, an Indiana resident who asked to be identified by only his first name because of privacy concerns, was turned on to Russian table tennis by a friend after a losing streak of 10 to 15 bets on rugby and Australian rules football. He would usually bet on college sports and mainstream professional leagues, but with those currently closed, the “sports” in “sports betting” are far more unusual. He is now gambling on video games such as the first-person-shooter-game Call of Duty and League of Legends, a fantasy battle game. “The sports I am betting on the most are ones that a lot of people would not consider sports,” he told me. Russian table tennis, he continued, was “wildly random,” but nonetheless a sport he has had good results with. “The biggest thing I have learned about table tennis is that no lead is safe, and a comeback is always possible,” he said. When mainstream sports return, though, did he plan to continue wagering on the matches? “Definitely not.”

President Donald Trump recently bemoaned the lack of sports, saying that he was tired of baseball reruns during a recent press conference as he pushed for lockdown measures to be eased and for life to return to a semblance of normal. Elsewhere, Germany’s top soccer league has said its players could return to the pitch as early as next month, and baseball has returned in South Korea and Taiwan, albeit with mannequins and cardboard cutouts taking the place of fans in the seats. When I asked Engelbrecht-Bresges if he thought the jockey club’s response could be replicated by other sporting leagues, he was skeptical. Few, if any, leagues have their employees living in an area that can be cordoned off, the outbreak in Hong Kong has been far less severe than elsewhere, and sports that are dependent on fans filling stadiums must precariously balance public-health and business concerns, he said.

Metivier, the Canadian sports bettor, told me that he had to scrap a trip to Las Vegas with friends for the start of the NCAA basketball tournament, and that he had spent months compiling a betting guide to Major League Soccer, work that appears, for the moment, to have been futile. Tajik soccer, he said, was probably as obscure as he was willing to go with his wagers, though not for lack of offerings: “You can find some really weird stuff—marble racing, entertainment and political bets.” Still, he said, “I don’t want to get too crazy betting on things I have no knowledge of. I don’t want to damage my bankroll for when real sports come back.”