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William Hill has turned to everything from sumo to table tennis to keep sports betting going

2nd April, 09:20

Photo illustration / Shutterstock.com

By Case Keefer (contact)

Thursday, April 2, 2020 | 2 a.m.

Shortly after all the major professional and collegiate American sports leagues announced cancellations or postponements due to the coronavirus, Nick Bogdanovich called a staff meeting with a simple message to impart.

"Put on your creative caps, and search the world to see what's out there," Bogdanovich, U.S. director of trading for William Hill, told his bookmaking team. "We're going to book anything we possibly can."

William Hill didn't have to look too far at first. Nevada's largest sportsbook operator elevated offerings that typically filled the bottom of its betting boards -- Mexican and Australian soccer, Aussie rules football -- to the centerpieces of its daily wagering menus.

When those leagues eventually shut down, too, new ideas became a necessity. Bogdanovich and his staff have since begun booking the likes of Japanese sumo wrestling, Russian chess, Belarusian hockey and Nicaraguan soccer. But one new market has stood out above the rest.

"Russian table tennis has been pretty popular," Bogdanovich says. "There are a zillion matches a day, so a bet here, a bet there, a bet here adds up. I've been pretty astonished by the amount of tickets on Russian table tennis."

No one is betting in person, given Gov. Steve Sisolak's mandate to shut down casinos and other nonessential businesses. Some sportsbooks even opted to close mobile wagering, leaving their apps dormant until more mainstream games restart. Most operators left the apps running but with options limited to futures, like odds on teams to win the Super Bowl or Stanley Cup.

William Hill and, to a lesser extent, Circa Sports, appear to be the only bookmakers attempting to go forward with niche offerings. As Bogdanovich explains, his company is in a uniquely feasible position to do so.

William Hill U.S.' parent company is based out of the United Kingdom, where sports betting is more advanced in terms of betting options. For the most part, adding new sports stateside is as easy as taking the opening lines from William Hill's London headquarters.

It takes some extra work to monitor the betting action from there, but it's not as if Bogdanovich has assigned a sportsbook director to scout the backhand of top-ranked Russian table tennis player Kirill Skachkov.

"[With] all of this stuff, we're leaning on the U.K., especially the Russian table tennis and sumo," Bogdanovich says. "Finding information on that stuff is very difficult."

Another hurdle: getting approval from state gaming commissions for all the new options. Bettors in Nevada have the entirety of William Hill's board available, given the state Gaming Control Board's experience and familiarity, but options are more limited in Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey and West Virginia, states where the company also has its app up and running.

The Gaming Control Board recently reapproved wagering on esports, prompting William Hill and Circa to immediately post lines on a Counter-Strike tournament with plans for more in the future. Bogdanovich says William Hill dabbled in esports previously but drew minimal volume when it was up against the likes of the NFL and NBA.

"We have a guy in-house who's fairly familiar with esports, so we feel pretty good with it," Bogdanovich says. "We'll see how it goes now that it's the only game in town. There will be more eyes on it. We should definitely find some bets."

Posted betting limits for most of the new sports are $1,000, though Bogdanovich says he's staying flexible, especially with soccer. Premier soccer leagues in both Nicaragua and Belarus have continued to play and are listed on the William Hill app.

"We don't want to go too crazy, but our soccer people understand soccer," Bogdanovich says. "People love soccer, and we have a built-up soccer business as it is."

One place where William Hill is getting little to no business is the NFL, the sport that typically rules sports betting. Bogdanovich has stayed active in adding season-long NFL bets, such as odds to win divisions and over/under win totals, but it hasn't attracted much action thus far.

He says he suspects it's a combination of gamblers not wanting to tie up money for eight months and them wondering if the season will even take place. Bogdanovich adds that he posted the odds just as much for publicity and as something for people to talk about.

In that way, the NFL lines are similar to the sumo and table tennis matches they now sit alongside. It's not as if William Hill has really boosted its profit margins with results like Takanoshō Nobukai upsetting Shōdai Naoya on the final day of the Haru Basho sumo tournament.

"We've been a very, very small winner overall," he says. "I'm extremely pleased with how many tickets have been written, but as far as dollars to the bottom line, it's very slim."

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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