Why you can bet on more sports betting, thanks to COVID-19

There was already a spike in sports betting, but a drop in dollars and viewership due to COVID-19 means it's going to keep blowing up.



August 13, 2021 - 1:53 PM

TAMPA, Fla. — Sports gambling was already on the rise thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that paved the way for states to legalize it. The pandemic took betting to another level as teams and leagues tried to stave off declines in money and viewership.

Though last year’s empty stadiums didn’t lead to the financial apocalypse teams feared last summer, they still hurt. The NFL’s salary cap fell 8% because of the drop in income. The Rays instituted pay cuts. The Florida Gators reported a $54.5 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year, while USF’s athletic department is down 60 employees. 

The financial challenges will not fix themselves.

“Everyone’s trying to diversify their revenue stream,” said David Pierce, director of the Sports Innovation Institute at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

Bet on gambling being the most visible. Teams and leagues have already started making deals that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

NASCAR, the University of Colorado and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury have all added sports betting partnerships over the last 11 months. The NFL announced deals with three sportsbooks in April, and the first sportsbook at a major U.S. pro sports venue opened at Washington D.C.’s Capital One Arena in May. 

Besides new revenue opportunities, betting is a way for teams and leagues to re-engage fans who tuned out last year. A Navigate survey during the fall found that one-fourth of casual fans think on-site sportsbooks would improve their experience and one-third of respondents think it would make them more likely to attend a game.

Syracuse University’s Dennis Deninger said fans who have money on games are more likely to watch in general and more likely to watch longer. That’s not a surprise to anyone who glues themselves to out-of-market games because of their fantasy teams.

“There will be some concerted efforts to get people back to watch,” said Deninger, a former sports TV executive. “Gambling might be part of it.”

It already is. Just look at the Lightning’s playoff run. Even though sports betting is not yet legal in Florida, the gambling references were unavoidable.

The team played its first-round games on a regional TV network (Bally Sports Sun) that rebranded under the umbrella of a casino and betting company earlier this year. Amalie Arena had an ad for one sportsbook (FanDuel) on its boards plus another gambling site (Betway) on its ice.

If that wasn’t enough, national broadcasts periodically featured the latest odds from a fourth gambling partner, PointsBet.