Hey, remember sports?
For a span of nine weeks, since a minor boxing card on March 13, there were no notable live sporting events on U.S. soil. So if you forgot what an actual athletic competition looked and felt like, that’s understandable.
(No, WrestleMania doesn’t count. Nor does the NFL draft, even though folks in most legal betting states could wager on it.)
The look and feel of real sports came rushing back this past Saturday night — even if that look and that feel were a bit different than we remembered them, without paying fans in attendance — when UFC put on an 11-fight card, divided into “free” prelim fights on ESPN and a main show on pay-per-view. Nearly 60 days after the NBA suspended play and the rest of American organizations promptly followed suit, live sports in the U.S. came back on May 9.
And sports bettors were ready.
The handle created was an MMA record for many sportsbooks, despite the fact that the Justin Gaethje-Tony Ferguson lightweight main event was a replacement bout and not a long-anticipated mega-fight.
“On overall handle, this UFC 249 card ended up slightly outperforming Conor McGregor’s return to the octagon in UFC 246,” PointsBet Director of Communications Patrick Eichner told US Bets. “Those two events have blown every other UFC event to date out of the water, with handles comparable to a full weekend’s worth of NBA games.”
Find me somebody to bet on
Other books reported similar levels of action. FanDuel Sportsbook, available online in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, and most recently Colorado, said UFC 249 produced one-third of the total MMA betting handle for the year so far and generated almost four times as much handle as the March 7 UFC 248 card did. The Las Vegas SuperBook’s Eric Osterman told reporter Patrick Everson they did six figures of action, better than the typical UFC PPV.
It’s no surprise. Sports fans were starved for something to watch. Sports bettors were starved for something to sweat. And while some have turned to Korean baseball or Russian table tennis, a UFC event taking place in Jacksonville, Fla., offered more recognizable names and a chance to bet without either doing exhaustive research or randomly throwing a dart.
This was the closest approximation in two months to an NFL game where a casual sports fan knows a little something already about the competitors and can make a quick educated guess before parting with his money.
Gaethje upset mostly good for the books
The main event ended in a minor upset (one that US Bets’ Brian Pempus foresaw on last week’s Gamble On podcast), with Gaethje TKO-ing Ferguson in the fifth and final round. Numerous sportsbooks reported that Ferguson’s defeat broke up plenty of parlays on the final leg.
The fight going over 2½ rounds was a split result for bettors at William Hill, with more money on the under but nearly two-thirds of the bets cashing for plus-money on the over:
Check out the over/under round trends at William Hill Sports Book for UFC 249's two title fights tonight.
What side are you on? pic.twitter.com/EFXHRaCRMm
— William Hill US (@WilliamHillUS) May 10, 2020
At FanDuel, 68% of the bets and 59% of the handle were on Ferguson, a -190 favorite the day before the fight. Customers fared better on the winner-independent “how fight will end” bet, where 80% of the handle was on KO/TKO.
One FanDuel bettor made four separate wagers on Gaethje as his odds fluctuated slightly:
- $4,910 at +150
- $1,300 at +150
- $2,000 at +148
- $3,683.45 at +148
The bettor risked $11,893.45 in all and returned a healthy $29,619.96.
In Pennsylvania, the biggest Gaethje backer had better timing, putting $2k on the underdog when he was priced at +160.
While various online sportsbooks competed for customer attention with assorted UFC 249 promos, perhaps the most interesting came via PointsBet — available in New Jersey, Indiana, and Iowa — where the odds on Ferguson moved with every bet placed, starting at -190 and gradually working their way toward even money. Unfortunately, the result rendered the final odds of the “crowd booster” bet irrelevant. That booster helped drive Ferguson to about 80% of the handle on PB.
William Hill did well with the biggest reported bet of the weekend, a high roller staking $105,000 on Ferguson at iffy -210 odds.
Inside the undercard action
FanDuel Sportsbook had a strong hold on the Henry Cejudo-Dominick Cruz co-feature as well, with 60% of the bets and 58% of the handle on underdog Cruz, who lost by TKO in round two. Again, bettors cashed in on the method of victory, with 78% of the handle finding its way to KO/TKO.
PointsBet saw a different trend, with Cejudo attracting about 80% of the handle, but the book was facing a significant liability on the fight going over 2½ rounds and dodged that bullet.
The battle of veterans Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone drew the most handle outside the main event, according to FanDuel, and bet count there was split perfectly at 50/50. Handle, however, favored Pettis 63%-37%, and it was indeed Pettis who won by unanimous decision. At FanDuel, 72% of the “how fight will end” bets saw it going the distance.
DraftKings Sportsbook offered a decent odds boost on a Pettis-Cejudo-Ferguson favored-fighters parlay, from +290 to +330, with Gaethje spoiling the dreams of the bettors who jumped on that one. A boost at DK on the Pettis-Cerrone fight to last the distance, beefed up from +125 to +145, did, however, provide nice bang for the bettor’s buck.
More UFC fights to bet this week
We’re still, optimistically, a month and a half from the return of major American team sports. The PGA is planning to tee off again on June 11. Until then, UFC will continue to have the opportunity to dominate the fight, against minor overseas sports and NFL futures, for sports betting dollars.
There are two UFC events scheduled this week, on Wednesday and Saturday. The first card, on ESPN+, is headlined by light heavyweights Anthony Smith and Glover Teixeira, with odds at most books in the neighborhood of -185 on Smith and +155 on Teixeira.
Heavyweights take center-Octagon on Saturday, May 16, on ESPN, with Alistair Overeem meeting Walt Harris. Overeem is the underdog there, as high as +150, while the best price we’re seeing on Harris is -165.
And then there’s Gaethje vs. lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. The fight hasn’t been signed or scheduled, but that isn’t stopping some of the books from opening betting. At PointsBet, Khabib is a -350 favorite, whereas a Gaethje win pays +250.
The betting handle for this week’s fights will be intriguing to track. Did new UFC gamblers get a first taste this past weekend, and will they come back for more? With a dearth of other sports to devote time to, are more casual fans getting familiar with the sport and the fighters?
Whether or not you approve of UFC President Dana White’s boldness in the face of a pandemic — or commentator Joe Rogan’s disregard for the safety rules — the reality is that UFC has a unique opportunity to expand its fan base and its betting base.
Saturday’s wagering handle suggests the “if you build it, he will come” principle is in play.
Photo by Jasen Vinlove / USA Today Sports