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What is sports betting without sports?
It's a question the sports betting community has grappled with since Wednesday night, when the NBA suspended its season indefinitely after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Since then, the NCAA canceled its men's and women's college basketball tournaments, the NHL and MLB suspended play, and other leagues across the world took precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus. By the time you're done reading this, another league will have likely followed suit.
Among the hundreds of unanswered questions resulting from this global pandemic, the sports betting industry faces a peculiar one: If there are no sports, what are bettors and bookmakers supposed to do?
"It's never happened," said Robert Walker, sportsbook director for USBookmaking. "We're in such uncharted territory."
Many books, including theScore Bet in New Jersey, have suspended all bets on leagues such as the NBA, NHL, and MLB until further confirmation on when play may resume. In the case of a canceled postseason - such as the NCAA Tournament - most bettors can expect a refund for their futures bets. That includes win totals and title tickets, even if those teams had already been eliminated from contention.
But such refunds depend entirely on the house rules of each book, which may not be equipped for this type of situation. In many cases, bet shops are simply trying to take cues from the leagues in question - which, in a time of ever-changing information, can prove tricky.
"When you’re creating house rules, you try to anticipate different scenarios," said Jay Rood, Bet.Works' chief risk officer and theScore Bet's head trader. "But this is a hard scenario to anticipate."
Sportsbooks also have to prepare for the immediate losses from not booking major events on the betting calendar. Last year, Nevada generated $495 million from bets on basketball during March alone, which included $32.5 million in winnings. That's to say nothing of the lost revenue from food and beverages when bettors congregate for key sporting events, such as March Madness or pro leagues' playoffs.
To be clear, there are worse ramifications from the coronavirus outbreak than canceled bets, even within sports - the risk posed to players, team employees, and their families takes precedent. Still, with the sports world on pause, books are preparing for something they've never faced before.
"We’re definitely bracing for the possibility that there’s very little for us to do in April," Walker said.
If this "sports blackout" extends beyond three or four weeks, it'll put incredible stress on books to expand their offerings. Bettors surely won't replicate the volume of basketball and baseball with, say, golf or auto-racing, and an extended period without revenue could threaten the viability of smaller or seasonal leagues - meaning even less to bet on when play resumes.
Needless to say, sportsbooks suffering major losses could jeopardize opportunities for bettors when everything returns to "normal." Yet even with fewer sports to book in the event of a widespread suspension of play, oddsmakers can't afford to inflate prices on their bets during that stretch without losing even more customers, forcing them to navigate even thinner margins in an industry with little room for error.
"You’re not going to see ‘price gouging’ because nobody's going to engage with us if we do that," Rood said. "We’re all in the same boat. We'll be as creative as we possibly can on what’s left to put up for wager."
What if games resume but with no fans? That presents another challenge for sportsbooks, which will be pricing a home advantage with no real evidence to work from.
Normally, home teams get a boost of 2.5 or 3 points on the line, but with no fans in the arena, is it really such an advantage? Rood expects that number to come down, as might the over/under for basketball games played in an empty gym. But he admits that's only a guess, and the early days of fanless sports will be an important "information-gathering" period from the sharp community - albeit with lower limits than usual.
"The answer is we kind of don’t know (what we'd do)," Rood said. "We’re going to need a sample size, and we’re going to have to adapt quickly to what unfolds in those early games if that’s the case moving forward."
For now, it's a "wait and see" situation for sportsbooks, which were booking NCAA title bets just a few days ago. However, they're far from the only ones dealing with the fallout from the coronavirus.
"I've been telling everybody when they leave, 'Be safe,' because that’s all that matters," Walker said. "You want to see the same people the next day. We don’t want to lose anybody over something like this.
"There will be another March Madness. There will be another NBA season. We just want everybody to be safe and healthy."
C Jackson Cowart is a betting writer for theScore. He's an award-winning journalist with stops at The Charlotte Observer, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Times Herald-Record, and BetChicago. He's also a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and his love of sweet tea is rivaled only by that of a juicy prop bet. Find him on Twitter @CJacksonCowart.