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From basketball in Tajikistan to the weather: how gambling companies are riding out Covid-19 | Scott Heinrich

29th March, 23:58

In a time when not much is happening, sports punters are being offered new ways to have a bet

The Belarusian Premier League is huge right now. No doubt its time was coming anyway, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it the most-watched competition in European football. As the only top-tier league still playing through the crisis, however, that isn't hard. Happiest of all that Belarus is reporting virtually no infections are sports bettors, and by extension the wagering companies who accommodate them.

Internet pages are now awash with blogs, tips and previews on Slutsk v Dynamo Brest. Experts are coming out of the woodwork to steer you into the correct score/first goalscorer double in the Isloch v Smolevichi-STI blockbuster. "Sports such as Taiwanese basketball, Belarusian Premier League and Tajikistan men's basketball are up approximately 2,000%," a Tabcorp spokesman told Guardian Australia. It seems any port in a storm will do for Australia's legion of sports punters who contribute a not-insignificant proportion towards a gambling industry worth almost $25bn annually.

While turnover increases in the thousands might look good on paper, nobody is suggesting the Belarusian Premier League is a panacea for companies who make money out of other people's opinions. But in a time when almost all professional sport has ground to a halt, betting on a league many might not have heard of six weeks ago shows how committed some are to getting set.

And the bookies are obliging. Been following the Russian Fiba 3x3 recently? No? You're missing out. Tabcorp is reporting the competition as "the most popular" with sports punters. "There was already some interest in this as it will be an Olympic sport in the next Games, but overall in the last week it is up 50%."

And it doesn't stop there. With a hit or kicked ball nowhere to be seen, Australian gamblers are being offered products once considered somewhere between esoteric and non-existent. On top of the standard suite of markets on reality TV shows - in 2019, Tabcorp held $1.3m on Masterchef alone - customers can invest their wagering dollar on the US election, the Nobel Peace Prize and the Time Person of the Year. "For the Nobel, the eventual inventors of the vaccine for Covid-19 are the $2 favourites and the World Health Organisation are the $2 favourites to be named Time Person/People of the Year," the Tabcorp spokesman said.

If weather watching is your thing - and with many of life's pleasures on hold, it might well become a thing for many - you're in luck. "We have also this week opened markets on the weather - punters can bet whether the temperature in each major city will go above or below a certain temperature."

It would seem a market on two flies climbing up a wall is next but horse racing and greyhound racing in Australia are still in operation. Paused in several states last week when it was reported a jockey had been tested for Covid-19, thoroughbred racing resumed in time for the weekend's autumn carnival action after Mark Zahra returned a negative. The duty-of-care concerns attached to an industry that depends on animals aside, the continuation of racing is a godsend for the hundreds of thousands of people who either work in the industry or invest in it. And for those who follow it.

The situation is far grimmer in the UK. With all sport and racing now halted, industries have been decimated and multitudes left out of work.

The Racing Post, the daily bible of British horse racing and sports betting, has ceased production of its newspaper during the outbreak and is only publishing its digital edition. There isn't much to write about. In its popular 'What to watch on Saturday' column, readers were pointed to Australian horse racing, the Belarusian Premier League (of course) and a re-run of Minder, with the connection being that the actor playing the leading role was a fan of horse racing.

These are indeed challenging times, with no end in immediate view. When approached for comment, a senior content editor at the UK betting exchange, Betconnect, duly obliged - in one of his final tasks before redundancy left him jobless. "It is a very hard time for many sectors and many businesses," he said. "BetConnect would normally expect to trade several million pounds of bets in a regular month and spring is a particularly good time of year. Virtually none of the usual revenue will be coming our way."

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