The bubbles are working. The NBA and NHL seem to be, respectively, dribbling and skating along smoothly, with no positive COVID-19 tests reported in either league since their closed-off-campus season continuations began last week.
The MLB approach is not working. With players and staff permitted to interact with the outside world and traveling from stadium to stadium, the Marlins and Phillies have each missed eight games, the Cardinals will have missed nine by the time they (hopefully) resume on Friday, the Brewers have missed four, the Orioles four, the Yankees three, and the Tigers three and counting. Asterisks abound as the world witnesses a push-and-pull between the “we’ll keep going no matter what” forces and the “one more outbreak and it’s over” gang.
Meanwhile, the NFL gets to sit back and watch these experiments play out as its power-brokers try to decide how to get through the upcoming season as safely as possible, with as few games canceled as possible, and playing as few “NFL team vs. practice squad extras” contests as possible.
The combination of time and money means the NFL will learn from baseball’s failures and have the resources to do better. But the league has given no indication it is considering any sort of a bubble approach. And unlike baseball, football is a sport that presents constant opportunity for the virus to spread on the field, during the games. If COVID-positive players get onto the field — even the practice field in mid-August — concerns abound.
Through Wednesday, 56 NFL players had already opted out of playing in 2020. And some superstars who plan to play don’t feel great about it:
Odell Beckham Jr. told the Wall Street Journal that he doesn't think the 2020 NFL season should happen. pic.twitter.com/2sF0DDsfUE
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 3, 2020
All indications point to an NFL season happening — or at least starting. But … what if it doesn’t?
2020 has been a disastrous year for so many people and so many industries, and sportsbooks are among those that have taken a huge hit. It’s unsettling to consider the impact on the sports betting business if by chance we don’t get those 17 weeks of regular-season football, three weeks of playoffs, and the biggest single-day event of every sports wagering year: the Super Bowl.
Contraction replaces expansion
“If there’s no NFL football, I think we would see some dramatic closures around the country for sportsbook operators who have invested heavily in different platforms in different states,” said Matt Perrault, the Las Vegas-based host of the Pushing the Odds radio show and the Daily Juice podcast.
Perrault is highly confident the NFL, which has “too much money at stake” to concede defeat to the virus for anything short of a COVID-related death among its ranks, will proceed with its season. So to him, this analysis of the impact on sports betting of a shelved NFL season is mostly hypothetical. But that potential negative impact is enormous.
“The expansion of sports betting would stop immediately,” he said. “I think the application process for new licenses would stop immediately. I think there would be some really hard conversations here in Vegas about what the books look like and what their staffing would look like.
“I mean, if NFL football doesn’t happen, it changes the sports gambling industry — maybe for the next five years, if you don’t have this football season to fall back on. Even though the NBA being back is great, and having soccer and golf and UFC fights to bet on is great, that’s not what they make their money on. If they don’t have a football season, they don’t have the revenue to do anything else for the rest of the year and early 2021. It would be as catastrophic a blow as you could possibly deliver to the sports gambling industry if they did not play.”
The numbers bear out the severity of that blow, particularly in Vegas. In September 2019, the first full month of the NFL (and college) season last year, of the $546.4 million wagered on sports in Nevada, $377.5 million came in on football. That equates to 69.1% of the handle.
In New Jersey, the reliance on football is not as pronounced, but it’s still clear that the NFL is king. Of the $445.6 million in September 2019 handle in the Garden State, football made up $188.6 million, or 42.3% of the action.
Bookmakers cautiously optimistic
There are currently 19 states/jurisdictions in the U.S. with legalized sports betting and four more that have passed bills and are awaiting implementation. Some of them somewhat resemble Nevada, with either no mobile sports betting or with in-person registration required for sports betting, making the brick-and-mortar sportsbook still the primary destination. Others look like New Jersey, with wagers just a tap on an app away for anyone of legal age. Nevada and New Jersey give a sense of how the reliance on NFL games may vary, but whether it’s 42% or nearly 70%, football is far and away the driving force in sports betting in every state from the preseason through the Super Bowl.
Kelly Stewart, a sports betting media personality best known as “Kelly in Vegas” and recently featured on the Showtime docuseries Action, shares Perrault’s belief that there will be an NFL season, as well as his extreme concern over how bad it would be for the sports betting business if those expectations are upended.
“With no NFL, it would be truly devastating, not only to Las Vegas, but all the other states that have legalized sports betting, the offshore markets, a company like William Hill based in England — it would be devastating across the globe,” Stewart said. “We already know that some sportsbook jobs have been in danger with the advent of the apps. We’ve started to see that over the last couple of years. And now, no offense, but who wants to sit in a smoky sportsbook wearing a mask? I don’t. I haven’t spent one second in the sportsbook since basically early March.
“So, it’s already been devastating, and I think that we would see massive layoffs, from the teller position to the supervisor position, if there really was no NFL season. The apps would still remain open, and those people in higher-level positions, the guys in the risk room, I think will be OK, because we’re still going to have other major sports.
“As far as I’ve heard from the people at the sportsbooks, they’re like me — they’re trying to have an optimistic outlook on things.”
US Bets reached out to three separate bookmakers/operators seeking an interview for this article. One didn’t respond to the request, and the other two declined to comment on what they viewed as a pure hypothetical, and an unlikely one at that. Across the industry, despite MLB’s struggles keeping a game schedule without a bubble setup, confidence is high that the NFL will proceed.
The college question
College football is looking a fair bit more iffy. Though the loss of an NCAA football season would be financially disastrous for many schools, the resources to test, trace, bubble, etc., are far more limited than in the NFL. On Wednesday, a potential domino fell:
Can confirm that @UConn is the first top-tier football program to cancel its season. UConn isn't in a football conference, and all the others going to mostly conference-only made it really hard for independents to put a schedule together (see: @NotreDame).
— Eben Novy-Williams (@novy_williams) August 5, 2020
The logistics of pulling off college football, even with modified, in-conference-only schedules, are daunting — which is to say nothing of the optics of college football players clashing in person while their schoolmates’ classes take place virtually.
If there’s NFL, but no college football — or limited college football — how would that impact the books?
“Well, we know that the two are worlds apart from a betting perspective,” Stewart said. “NFL has always been king and it will always be king. No college football is definitely going to hurt sportsbooks’ bottom line, but I think that just increases the number of bets and the size of the wagers placed on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday on the NFL. I do think college football will happen on some level. I think several conferences want it to happen. But if it doesn’t, the money will just shift to NFL and other sports.”
College football is the second most heavily bet sport in Vegas, Perrault says, but he echoes Stewart’s sentiment that the gap between no. 1 and no. 2 is substantial. Interestingly, he wonders if the sportsbooks won’t be the ones feeling the brunt of the impact if there’s no college football.
“It really impacts the professional gamblers more than it does the sportsbooks,” Perrault said, “because the professional gamblers are the ones who look at the MAC Thursday night football game and come in and bet the limit on those games that they think they’ve got an edge on. Those are the games that the public doesn’t really play — the Akron Zips aren’t seeing a $5,000 wager from Joe Public. But they might from a pro.”
Can you build an NFL bubble?
Based on the past two weeks of major professional team sports returning in America, bubbles work, and without bubbles, outbreaks will occur and whole teams will be effectively moved off the board. Perhaps that’s an oversimplification, and perhaps the NFL will fare better than MLB, but the fact remains: The NFL’s best chance to get through a season with rosters intact is with a bubble setup.
Realistically, though, you can’t ask 32 teams, with rosters five times the size of an NBA roster, to isolate from their families in one place for five months straight, no matter how well you’re paying them. It’s a non-starter.
So here’s one sportswriter’s proposal:
The league creates four bubbles, each containing eight teams and lasting seven weeks. For example, the NFC East and AFC East go into a bubble. Over seven weeks, each team plays the other seven. If there’s only one stadium in the bubble and you have to pull off four games a week, you play two on Saturday, and two on Sunday (plus in one of the bubbles, there’s a Monday night game). At the end of seven weeks, players get a two-week break to spend at home with their families.
Then the second seven-week bubble begins. This time it’s, say, the NFC East and the NFC South. By the end of this, each team has played 14 games, including its normal six against its division rivals. This is followed by a one-week break at home with families before the playoffs (two weeks at home for those teams that earned a bye).
It’s not quite a 16-game season, but it’s close enough, and it ends at the same time. And nobody enters any bubble without having tested negative for COVID-19.
Maybe it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s one theoretical way to have an NFL season that is highly unlikely to come apart at the seams the way the current MLB season is threatening to do.
If you’re a sportsbook operator, especially one who thinks in terms of numbers and risk/reward calculations, with so much on the line entering this football season, 14 games without an outbreak has to sound a lot more appealing than taking your chances on rolling any number between zero and 16.
Photo by Kim Klement / USA Today Sports