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Fantasy debates? DFS 'Survivor'? How sports betting survives amid coronavirus shutdown

7th April, 02:14

With the coronavirus pandemic grinding the sports world to a halt, keeping fantasy players in the money has taken some imagination.

With no NBA, MLB, PGA or virtually any other mainstream sport, that industry and the larger sports betting universe has had to look inward to move forward.

"I'd say we're just taking it day-by-day," said Cal Spears, CEO of Better Collective Tennessee which operates DFS site RotoGrinders among its properties.

"Everything is changing so fast and furiously that it's really just taking it day-by-day."

Spears said the night of March 11 following the NBA's announcement it'd be suspending its season, his company held a meeting to decide its next steps. One of its first moves was to pause all paid RotoGrinders subscriptions as one of its cash cow leagues did the same, a service that primarily focuses on tips and advice for daily fantasy games across the pro sports landscape. The decision was a clear one to make, Spears said, but one that actively cut out a large chunk of revenue as it waited out the sports pause.

"The main reason is that there's nothing to charge people for," Spears said. "So we definitely [knew] the right thing to do is to pause."

But the bets are still out there if companies know where to look. Spears noted that its daily fantasy games surrounding esports -- specifically "League of Legends" -- have increased tenfold. Bettors have also turned their focus to professional ping pong and Belarus Premier League soccer.

But the most unique action came from daily fantasy site DraftKings as it ran a free contest during a March debate featuring democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Players would pick between several items, such as how many times each would say the word "medicare."

Following standard DFS rules, each player would gain points based on variety of terms or options, and how often they came up. One of those players was Brett Smiley, editor-in-chief and founder of SportsHandle, a betting news site under the umbrella of Better Collective.

"So you're just sitting there like every time they say the word Medicare just 'ding, ding, ding,' getting points. Obviously you can't do that for real money... but it was a lot of fun" said Smiley, adding that DFS site Fanduel did its own version of a live game during a broadcast of the CBS show "Survivor."

"They're getting creative," Smiley said. "These are all good distractions and diversions. There's only so much news people can consume before it gets mentally draining."

But while non-traditional games, which have included an NBA2K Players Tournament broadcast live on ESPN2, can keep socially distanced viewers entertained, it's done little to mitigate the impact on businesses involved.

Many sportsbooks and betting sites remain in their infancy after a 2018 Supreme Court ruling struck down a federal law banning sports betting outside of Las Vegas. They must now survive a revenue downturn with no definitive end date. And next?

"Let's say Joe Bettor is keeping $500 in his account. What is he going to do? He's concerned probably about his paycheck, so he's taking that out," Smiley said. "They're having liquidity issues. But some more than others. [Larger-scale] operations will be OK, but other smaller books, there's problems there."

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Any liquidity concerns for casinos and elsewhere, at least so far as sports betting is concerned, largely won't reach Louisiana. Paid fantasy sports, despite being approved by vote in a majority of parishes in 2018, remain illegal due to an associated tax bill failing to move through the statehouse. The issue couldn't be taken up again until Louisiana's session in 2020, which coronavirus has postponed.

Louisiana remains just six states that blocks such games outright when played for cash prizes, according to LegalSportsReport.com.

But while New Orleans and Louisiana sports fans can't legally dig their teeth into long-term bets, its players and teams have been heavily featured.

Futures bets, such as "will Joe Burrow go No. 1 overall in the NFL draft," are seeing heavy action.

And a question that must be answered: What happens to futures bets sitting in limbo?

"Will the Pelicans make the playoffs?" was a very popular bet, said John Brennan, a longtime business journalist and former NBA beat writer who now covers the legal expansion of sports betting across the United States for USbets.com.

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Zion Williamson's end-of-season hardware is also being closely watched.

"He's amazing. I mean, everybody in New Orleans knows what a big deal he is. ... He was the most wagered on player for Rookie of the Year -- at favored odds, no less -- before the season," Brennan said. "There's millions of dollars at stake on whether he's Rookie of the Year."

The future of those bets, and much of the sports betting industry at large, will rest on how the various leagues determine the timing and safest way to come back to action.

"If [the NBA season] doesn't finish, is there a Rookie of the Year chosen?" Brennan said. "Do you lose your bet because there's no finish to the season?... What does 'making the playoffs' mean? ... That's going to be tricky for bookmakers across the country to figure out."

Pelicans' JJ Redick on idea of 'bubble city' NBA games: 'I just want to finish the season'

JJ Redick won't get bogged down in the specifics of how the NBA comes back. The Pelicans guard just wants a chance to keep his streak alive.

The answers to those questions are mostly wait-and-see. But if the Pelicans, and specifically JJ Redick, get their way, they'll get the chance to pay out naturally. The veteran guard has never missed the playoffs in his 13-year NBA career, and told ESPN he's spoken to many teammates, all of whom are in agreement -- even if it takes a "bubble city."

"Everybody I've talked to," Redick said, "everybody wants to finish the season."

So don't toss out those betting slips just yet.

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