The coronavirus scare is sports gambling’s worst nightmare. Virtually all major American sporting events have been canceled or postponed indefinitely, which means sports gamblers won’t have much to bet on, at least for a while. So, how long will this last and how bad will things get?
On most afternoons, 4 pm inside a Las Vegas sportsbooks is typically primetime. East Coast games are just about to tip-off or drop the puck at center ice. Gamblers line up at the betting windows eager to make their last-minute wagers.
But today was different.
At 4 pm on Thursday, March 12, the action inside virtually all race and sportsbooks slowed to a crawl. Just about everywhere around town — from the center Strip to the locals’ casinos all the way out to Boulder Highway — seats were empty. Only a few tellers were open, mostly sitting around with little to do.
Suddenly, the coronavirus scare has become very real. Even more worrisome, experts warn us the crisis will get worse.
Economic and social uncertainty threatens to obliterate what has been a thriving sports gambling sector. Now, with few sporting events to bet on, we’re about to enter uncharted territory. It’s happening with almost no warning and at a time when legalized sports betting has finally gained widespread popular acceptance, and is more popular than ever.
Dark Thursday Report
With so few games to bet on, there’s not much reason to hang out in a sportsbook. That seems to be the consensus opinion just about everywhere in Las Vegas.
I monitored several sportsbooks on the Strip over the last 36 hours, which has been the critical period during which most pro and college sports leagues announced a full-scale shutdown. The scene was identical everywhere. A smattering of tourists strolled through, staying no more than a minute or two, probably curious more than anything else.
Regulars appeared dazed and confused, uncertain of what to do exactly when suddenly confronted with hours of free time normally consumed by watching and betting on sports. It also appears staffing has already been cut back, at least in the public eye.
Seating galleries were nearly empty. The giant electronic odds boards were dark in several places.
On this dark Thursday (it was cloudy and rainy in Las Vegas), I visited three more sportsbooks in person — the Orleans, Arizona Charlie’s, and Red Rock. The scene was much the same as on the Strip. During my informal scouting trip, a few gamblers sat around, scattered in seats and hanging out. It was difficult to tell why they were there.
European soccer matches were playing on giant television screens in eerily empty stadiums without spectators. These games were one of the few sporting events still open to wagering. But it didn’t appear that anyone was actually betting on soccer games or even watching them. By my estimation, unless World Cup matches are on, the soccer betting market in Las Vegas is minuscule. Perhaps that will change in the weeks ahead, with little else to watch or bet on.
Many TVs had sports talk shows playing — with coronavirus dominating the discussion. Few seemed to be watching or listening intently, but they all seemed to know something strange was going on.
Horseplayers Still Ponying Up
At least one section in the sportsbooks I visited looked close to normal. Horse racing bettors are a different breed. That became abundantly clear from my survey today. Much to my surprise, multiple race and sportsbooks were populated by gamblers who apparently hadn’t yet heard of coronavirus and think pandemic must be that new computer music their grandkids are into.
The horse racing crowd certainly skewed much older than the rest of the casino and sportsbook patrons. At all three casinos on Thursday, the horses ran and the bettors yelled and cheered. Mini-television screens beamed live racing just like it was any other day. Most gamblers had Daily Racing Forms spread out of desks. The only two open tellers worked the racing side of the room.
“The reason the horse bettors are still with us was because of the big carryover on the Pick Six,” explained Art Manteris, the highly-respected longtime Race and Sports Director at the Red Rock Casino Resort in Summerlin. “We don’t know what will happen in the days ahead, but they’re still coming in and making bets.”
The same scene was repeated at the Orleans and Arizona Charlies. Horseplayers, largely comprised of retired men who looked like they hung out together and knew each other, weren’t going to let a pandemic keep them from betting daily doubles and trifectas.
They’re gamblers, after all.
What’s Ahead, How Bad Will Things Get, How Long Will It Last?
By all accounts, the suspension of sporting events is likely to last longer than we expect. Given the growing number of cases nationwide and increasing public fear, it makes sense that big sporting event crowd magnets would be cautious, even overly so.
Now that some professional athletes have also tested positive for the virus, which can have an incubation period of two weeks or more, keeping arenas dark until the threat passes seems to make sense. But what didn’t seem imaginable just two days ago was the rapid-fire shuttering of sporting events, making news that reverberated worldwide.
“The NHL suspended games earlier today and then we heard March Madness is postponed. That’s huge for Las Vegas,” Manteris said. “We just have to take it day-to-day. We don’t want to overreact. It’s just something where we have to take a wait-and-see approach.”
Manteris declined to speculate on when and if race and sportsbooks would be forced to reduce hours or lay off employees, but it really does seem inevitable.
“I can’t say what will happen. Let’s just hope for the best but also prepare for the worst,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything on this scale before … at least, for now, we still have horseplayers. There’s probably more people in here than at the track.”