A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Apr 9, 2020

Covid-19 Ended Sports Gambling, But You Can Bet on Top Chef - Or Wildlife Videos

A lot of people need action to bet on, however weird. JL

Andrew Beaton and Jared Diamond report in the Wall Street Journal:

The unprecedented sports hiatus has left fans longing for the games they love. Gamblers have an extra hole to fill. Without normal sports to bet on, they’re desperately searching for substitutes. It's gotten weird. Betting sites featuring sports are offering bets on everything from the weather to a proposed Oasis reunion. People are laying money on videogame simulations of football games. On a single day, American bettors wagered $100,000 on Russian table tennis matches. On Reality Fantasy League, there are triple the number of users this season of “Top Chef” compared to last year.
A couple of days a week in Omaha, Neb., Josh Skou likes to unwind after work by driving a few minutes across the Missouri River to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he can legally gamble on sports.

Table stakes

But these are strange, dark times. Every major league has shut down in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. So Mr. Skou had to get creative. Flipping through the channels at a friend’s house recently, before social distancing took hold, they landed on “Bears.” Normally at this time they would have been obsessively watching the NCAA basketball tournament, but they settled for this Disney nature documentary from 2014 that was showing on Starz. Two of these bears really did not like each other.
Magnus the bear was preparing to take on a challenger named Chinook in a prize fight for the ultimate bear spoils: a prime spot to hunt salmon. That’s when Mr. Skou’s friend looked over and said, “I’ve got 20 bucks on the up-and-comer.” Mr. Skou studied Magnus, a powerful Alaskan brown bear, and liked his chances. He took the bet.
“They start pushing and shoving, growling at each other. Magnus stands there victorious, and I won,” Mr. Skou said. “It brought back a really good feeling.”
The unprecedented sports hiatus has left fans longing for the games they love. Gamblers have an extra hole to fill. Without normal sports to bet on, they’re desperately searching for substitutes.
It’s gotten pretty weird. On a single day last week, American bettors wagered more than $100,000 on Russian table tennis matches at William Hill’s sportsbook, said Nick Bogdanovich, the bookmaker’s U.S. Director of Trading.
Betting sites featuring sports, scrambling to buoy their businesses, are offering bets on everything from the weather to a proposed Oasis reunion to benefit the U.K.’s National Health Service. People are laying money on their favorite TV shows and ones they’ve never even watched before. They’re even betting on videogame simulations of football games.
“Even with action on it, it was still kind of boring to watch,” said Adam Hayden, a safety consultant in Kentucky who successfully bet on the fake Green Bay Packers to beat the fake Chicago Bears in Madden NFL, the videogame franchise, last month. He wagered on Bovada, a betting website that offered bets on the virtual competition.
“People are at home, they’re looking for something to do and there’s no sports on,” said Anne Juceam, who runs Reality Fantasy League, a website that turns TV shows into fantasy sports competitions. As with other fantasy leagues, many groups of friends join and then bet among themselves.
Ms. Juceam’s website is surging in popularity, and people like Dave Duberstein are the reason why. A political consultant in Washington, Mr. Duberstein has been in the same fantasy baseball league with his brother since 2006. Now that’s on hold, and he “needed some sort of action,” he said.
That’s when a friend called with an unusual proposition: fantasy “Top Chef,” the reality cooking competition show that began its 17th season in March. The rules for the fantasy version are simple: you draft the real-life contestants and receive points for competitions they win.
Each player in Mr. Duberstein’s league drafted five chefs. Mr. Duberstein tried to scout the available options, but quickly realized that “it’s tougher to find the peripheral stats of these chefs” than it is for baseball players. So he took a different approach: He went to the websites of a restaurant each chef cooks at and made picks based on which menu he deemed better.
With the second overall pick, Mr. Duberstein took Jennifer Carroll, the executive chef at Philadelphia’s Spice Finch, which serves Mediterranean delicacies like shakshuka and date-braised lamb shank.
“I remembered her from another season she was on and thought she was a bad-ass chef,” Mr. Duberstein said. “I wanted someone I could root for.”
Mr. Duberstein and his pals aren’t oddballs. On Reality Fantasy League, there are triple the number of users for this season of “Top Chef” compared to last year, Ms. Juceam said.
Traditional sportsbooks and fantasy websites are scraping to make do. There have been more than 300,000 entries in DraftKings pools over the past couple of weeks, where people have won around $100,000 based on programs like ABC’s “Shark Tank.” Some places have begun offering bets based on the high temperature in given cities. Sportsbetting.com has set lines for how many times President Trump will say words like “tremendous” in his daily press briefing.
Other competitions are less formal. Michaela Rael couldn’t watch her beloved Denver Nuggets or Colorado Avalanche, so for the first time she tuned in to another popular program: Jeopardy! “I had never actually watched the show,” she said.
But she wasn’t just watching to see if she could beat the actual contestants. She was competing in a game of her own: betting $5 to $10 on every episode with family and friends who were also sheltering in place and watching.
Danny Belks was crushed when the games of his favorite team, Sheffield Wednesday, in the second tier of English soccer, were canceled. Mr. Belks is a frequent sports bettor on soccer and horse racing and insisted on finding an actual sport for his action. Which is how a guy in Sheffield, England, found himself glued to his screen watching Russian table tennis and South African horse racing.
“I never thought I’d have to stoop that low,” Mr. Belks said. “This is what coronavirus has brought me to.”
Mr. Belks wasn’t especially informed about the Russian men and women with paddles smacking tiny balls. His horse-racing handicapping was also limited, because he wasn’t familiar with the jockeys and trainers who run at Turffontein Racecourse, a track in a Johannesburg suburb. Despite that, Mr. Belks managed to hit on a few of his bets and became £100 richer—about $125.
That far-flung thrill was short-lived, though. South African horse racing shut down on March 27.
The remaining options are sparse: Belarusian and Nicaraguan soccer are still on the boards, and there still hockey games in Belarus, too. Until last Wednesday, William Hill was taking bets on the chess Candidates Tournament. Then even chess was canceled.
But there’s still Russian table tennis.
William Hill’s Mr. Bogdanovich said there can be between 60 and 70 matches a day, giving bettors constant action on games that don’t take too long.
“That’s the flavor of the month,” Mr. Bogdanovich said. “If you would’ve told me that we were riding X amount of dollars on it, I would’ve said it’s impossible. Yet, it’s happening in front of my eyes.”

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