UFC spearheads return of live sports

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN.com senior editor) 

Dana White
© Imagn

It’s acceptable for some people to live in fear. Some heed the public health warnings, stay indoors and take no chances. All of that is fine. Dana White is not one of those people, and that’s OK too.

I’m partial to those who like to gamble, yet I also understand it’s not for everyone.

With the American sports world locked down for almost two months, it’s time to get the ball rolling again. Are you ready to rumble? It’s no surprise that White, the UFC president who drops more F-bombs than the average sailor, is stepping out to lead the way.

“Dana White is the one commissioner who’s doing everything he can to get the sports leagues going, and I applaud him for it,” said John Murray, director of the Westgate SuperBook.

White has been trying for more than a month to get UFC 249 off the ground, and, barring an unexpected hitch, it finally will happen Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla.

This week will mark a reawakening for two prominent Las Vegas sportsbooks via phone apps. In this case, the phrase “phone it in” takes on a positive meaning. Mobile sports wagering returns Wednesday at the South Point and Thursday at the Westgate, just in time for a couple of significant events.

White is not the lone commissioner or president to forge ahead in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Roger Goodell has persistently maintained the NFL’s offseason schedule. The virtual draft in late April was a big hit, and the schedule will be released Thursday night.

It was mid-March when the NBA and NHL seasons were postponed, the NCAA tournament was canceled and the domino effect took down every other major and minor sport. When Nevada casinos went dark, so did most sportsbooks. Only four books — Caesars, Circa, MGM and William Hill — continued to operate mobile apps.

Jay Kornegay, vice president of the Westgate sportsbook, opted to keep his staff safely away from the office and shut down business completely.

“It was my decision,” Kornegay said. “Prior to March 17, we were scouring the planet to find things to put on the app, but it wasn’t worth it. What are we doing? We’re doing this for peanuts. So it has been like a vacation, a stay-at-home vacation.”

The NFL draft was the only major event in April. While the draft did draw strong wagering handles for books still operating in Nevada and New Jersey, Caesars and William Hill emerged on the losing end. Kornegay’s dislike for draft betting was another reason to keep the Westgate closed. With no over-the-counter public action, wagering on the app would come primarily from sharp bettors.

“In the first two years of NFL draft betting, we got our butts handed to us, and last year we lost a little, so we were 0-for-3,” Kornegay said.

South Point book director Chris Andrews also determined it was best to close the book along with the rest of the casino.

“I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing, cooking and probably watching too much TV,” Andrews said.

He’s also making football numbers. Andrews said he plans to post a large menu of NFL props when the mobile app reopens Wednesday. Optimism has grown about the NFL season kicking off as scheduled, with or without fans, but the college football question is much more complex and leads to considerable pessimism.

“I’m not putting up college football until I feel comfortable with it,” Andrews said. “I’m going to wait a little bit.”

In the meantime, sports betting scavengers have been picking apart the leftovers — Russian table tennis, Korean baseball, a few overseas soccer leagues, horse racing and low-level golf. The Westgate will reopen its app Thursday with NFL Week 1 lines, NFL props and UFC odds.

“We’ve been waiting for something we feel is worthwhile to book,” Murray said. “I’m looking forward to booking games and booking fights. It’s a loaded (UFC) card with some great fights. This would be a great card under normal circumstances.”

UFC 249 is headlined by an interim lightweight championship fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje on pay-per-view. The 12-bout card, with prelims televised by ESPN, is dotted by big names and includes a rematch between Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Anthony Pettis. The UFC put on a March 14 card in Brazil without fans. The NFL draft aside, this is the first major sporting event in the U.S. since the shutdown.

This is light at the end of the tunnel. This feels like an escape.

In the movie “Shawshank Redemption,” Andy Dufresne chiseled away at his prison cell wall for several years. On the night of his escape, he crawled through 500 yards of sewage before bursting into a river to realize freedom.

While social distancing is here to stay for a while, the sports world is slowly coming together.

NASCAR has scheduled its return for May 17, with seven races in 11 days. Golf returns in one form the same day with Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff competing in a skins game in Florida. Another proposed golf match in Florida will feature Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning before the PGA Tour plans to restart June 8.

White says the UFC will stage weekly events for the rest of the summer. At some point, the MLB season might finally open, and the NBA and NHL playoffs might actually happen.

We have had to swim through sewage to get here, and there’s still a long way to go.


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