Sports betting will survive if there isn't college football

By Matt Youmans  ( senior reporter) 

Ohio Stadium, aka the Horseshoe, will be empty this fall.
© Imagn

As a doomsday scenario for the college football season begins to develop, there is widespread fear and panic. If there are no Nick Saban sightings this fall, it might seem like the end of the world in Alabama.

In a race against the clock, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is helping to unify players from Power 5 conferences in an attempt to rescue the 2020 season from the ruins of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a two-minute drill of sorts, and Lawrence is an underdog.

What was feared all summer is becoming reality -- college football Saturdays could be a lost cause.

But with a long list of major sporting events already eliminated or postponed, bookmakers from Nevada to New Jersey are past the shockwave phase of what has happened and well into the planning phase of what the sportsbook business could look like in a different world. The absence of college football would be painful but far from financially crippling.

“We are going to take a hit if college football is not played this fall, but it’s probably not as big as some people believe,” Westgate SuperBook vice president Jay Kornegay said. “We expect a lot of the college money to flow over to the pro side.”

With sportsbooks facing a potential revenue problem, a major increase in NFL wagering is the most likely solution.

Consensus opinion is the books can survive without college football. The question no one wants to face is this: What if there’s no NFL season?

“I think there is a possibility there is either no college football or at least a limited season, and it's a fluid situation,” said USBookmaking’s Robert Walker, a former MGM Resorts sportsbook director. “It will definitely hurt from a bookmaking perspective, but of the two we would much rather have pro football. There are probably no guarantees there, as well. We just have to do the best we can with what we have.”

Confidence is high the NFL will play on. The preseason has been wiped out, but training camps are in motion and the Houston-Kansas City regular-season opener set for Sept. 10 is still on. Week 1 is a good bet to kick off as planned.

What the books have to offer in September and October are the NBA and NHL playoffs, golf, UFC and hopefully the continuation of the MLB season. That would be a large enough menu to keep the lights on this fall. For sportsbooks that went dark inside closed casinos for more than two months this summer, the daily action in August is a huge improvement.

“We feel comfortable that we can make adjustments regardless of the fallout,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “Football is a good piece of the action, but basketball is not that far behind.”

The Nevada sportsbook handle for 2019 totaled $5.3 billion, with football wagering leading the way at $1.87 billion (35%). Basketball was No. 2 on the handle list at $1.68 billion (31.7%), followed by baseball at $1.12 billion (21%).

While college and pro wagering numbers are not separated in the Nevada Gaming Control Board report, Kornegay said college action accounted for 46 percent of the Westgate’s football handle last year. Of course, that does not mean sportsbooks expect to see a decrease of nearly 50 percent in the football betting handle this season if there are no college games.

“Most of the college money will shift to the pro side, but not all of it,” Kornegay said. “Are we going to take a 20 percent or 30 percent hit? It might be only 10 percent. We’re not sure and it would be total speculation. What percentage is anyone’s guess.”

The thin summer schedule proved bettors will adjust to what’s available. The golf and UFC handles have skyrocketed. Korean baseball and Russian table tennis drew significant action. The betting public is flexible and resilient.

Paul Stone, a Texas-based handicapper and VSiN analyst who specializes in college football, said he has flipped his preseason routine in preparation for more NFL betting.

“I have historically focused most of my handicapping energies on college football, both in terms of year-round preparation and in-season wagering," Stone said. "However, I began shifting some of my focus around late July toward researching and studying NFL teams. With the fall college football season in serious jeopardy as of today, most of my daily attention is now being spent on the NFL.”

Stone is not alone, because most sharp bettors prefer college football. But we all bet the NFL as well, and the major pro handicapping contests are irresistible with lottery-like payoffs at the top.

Stone has entered the Westgate and Circa Sports NFL handicapping contests in recent years. He has not finished in the money in either contest, but went 47-34-4 in last year’s SuperContest and said he is comfortable in his ability to transition to the pro product.

"As sports handicappers, we have to be flexible and, in some cases including this one, perhaps even be able to reinvent ourselves,” Stone said. “Most respected handicappers are motivated by challenges and I'm looking forward to handicapping the NFL much more intensively this season.

“My betting unit size will certainly be smaller if we're limited to the NFL. The lines are so tight and there's simply not as much value in betting the NFL compared to the colleges. The NFL is more difficult to beat long term, but it can be done if you take a conservative approach and pick your spots."

It was a wild and crazy weekend for college football, with several media insiders declaring the fall season dead on arrival. But don’t call the coroner yet. It truly is a fluid situation as the story changes by the day.

After the Mid-American Conference announced Saturday the postponement of football in the fall, the Mountain West did the same Monday. So with two small FBS conferences down, how many big dominoes will fall? Two big ones fell Tuesday, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceling football in the fall.

Meanwhile, Saban made strong comments in support of playing, backed by several of his Alabama players. Lawrence and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney also said they believe it’s safe to play, with Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and other coaches echoing those sentiments.

It has been reported that Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska are interested in joining the Big 12 for this season -- so this story is far from over. The SEC seems determined to make every effort to hit the field, and the ACC (including Notre Dame) and Big 12 are more likely to follow the SEC’s lead.

A spring season is a problematic proposal. A handful of star players already have opted out of the fall season. The brightest star is Lawrence, the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He said he’s “100 percent committed” to playing in 2020, but it’s doubtful he would go all-in and risk injury by playing in the spring.

It’s possible three Power 5 conferences and 50 or more teams will move forward with the fall season, a scenario which would create plenty of betting action on Saturdays. But if school is out, expect the NFL to capitalize and pounce on the opportunity.

Sportsbooks will expand the NFL betting options, posting more propositions and fantasy-type wagers. The league certainly recognizes the benefits of catering to its betting followers. Changes in the NFL schedule are anticipated, with the league likely moving some games to Saturdays to take prime-time TV spots vacated by college football.

Look at the NFL’s Week 2 schedule, which shows 10 games in the early Sunday kickoff slot and three games in the afternoon. It would be easy to move two early games -- maybe Denver-Pittsburgh and Atlanta-Dallas -- to Saturday.

“It would make sense for the NFL to spread out the schedule and move two to three games to Saturdays,” Kornegay said. “Whenever you isolate a game, whether it’s college or pro, the wagering handle and TV ratings go up. I don’t see any downside to moving some games to Saturday.”

The college football season would be missed, but there is a game plan to replace it. Only the NFL is irreplaceable.

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