It has come to this for live sports bettors: Russian ping-pong.
“Basically, we’re looking anywhere in the world to put up something that can be decided in two hours, or a day,” said Nick Bogdanovich, U.S. director of trading for the bookmaking company William Hill.
The options have narrowed by the day over the past two weeks, starting with the suspension of the NBA season on March 11 and continuing through a dizzying string of postponements and cancellations worldwide.
For a time, Mexican soccer played on, then Australian rules football, but eventually there was almost nothing left because of precautions enacted to try to diminish the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Thursday, William Hill’s online offerings were down to Russian table tennis, European pro darts, Belarussian hockey and soccer, Nicaraguan soccer, esports, chess and some upcoming boxing and mixed martial arts events.
Some of those events are legal for online betting only in Las Vegas, which has more liberal policies than does New Jersey, another state where online sports betting is legal. It is not legal in New York.
William Hill has in-person books at Monmouth Park and in Atlantic City in New Jersey, both of which are closed for now. Other major sports books are in the same boat.
“That’s what it’s gotten down to,” Bogdanovich said. “We’re doing what we can. Obviously, a lot of people just bet the NBA, NHL and major sports and are not interested.
“But there are some others who have turned to it and are playing. I guess we’ve given some people something to brighten their day.”
Last week, William Hill took 1,500 bets in three days on sumo wrestling in Japan. “Listen, people can’t leave the house,” Bogdanovich said. “You get trapped in the house, you become a little stir crazy.”
How does a sports book go about setting odds on unfamiliar events? Bogdanovich said the U.S. book has taken its lead from parent company headquarters in Leeds, England, which has experience with some of these events.
“They’ve been booking these sports forever,” he said. “After we get a starting number, we let the money dictate where it goes, if there is enough money to move a line.”
But how do bettors figure this stuff out? He said there is some information on the Internet for resourceful researchers who want to “take a shot. They’re probably sitting there bored to tears and want something to sweat.”
Naturally, one might worry that people willing to wager on Russian ping-pong are potential problem gamblers. But Bogdanovich said that generally speaking, the amounts being bet are modest.
“The number of tickets is pretty good; the number of dollars is pretty small,” he said.
One still can make futures bets on the major sports, for when and if their seasons resume. If the NBA and NHL do not return, those bets made last autumn will be refunded.
Two events loom on the April calendar that could enliven betting: UFC 249, currently scheduled for April 18 and featuring Khabib Nurmagomedov against Tony Ferguson, and the NFL Draft, April 23-25.
“If [UFC president] Dana White can get that card on April 18 with Khabib and Ferguson, that would be double the normal [betting] because people are jones-ing for a big event they can relate to,” Bogdanovich said.
As for the draft, he said, “I pray they don’t cancel it. Once that gets closer, I imagine betting will spike on that.”
Bogdanovich, who has been in the business since 1986, said he never has seen anything like this situation.
“It’s wild; it’s wild,” he said. “We’re just trying to keep people active until the real stuff gets back.”