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Betting on the weather? Sportsbooks getting creative in wake of coronavirus

It has happened to oddsmaker Nick Bogdanovich more times than he can count during the past week. 

He’ll add an obscure game from a far-flung part of the world to the wagering menu at William Hill sportsbooks. Hours later, that same game will get canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving Bogdanovich scrambling for something, anything to replace it. 

“Every day, we wake up, we put new stuff up and it gets wiped out,” Bogdanovich told Yahoo Sports. “There’s literally almost nothing to bet on right now.”

With Nevada issuing a statewide edict to close all casinos for 30 days and a handful of other states attempting to curb the spread of the virus by doing the same, many U.S. sportsbooks have temporarily ceased operations. Those like William Hill and MGM that are still offering mobile sports betting are having to scour the globe to find live wagers to offer in this increasingly barren sporting landscape. 

Among the only options now available to online bettors are Turkish top-division basketball, Australian rules football, second-tier South American soccer and minor-league women’s golf. Playoff hockey from Russia had also been a staple of wagering menus the past few days until the Kontinental Hockey League on Tuesday became that sport’s last professional league to suspend action.

The abrupt shutdown of American sports has been especially poorly timed for sportsbooks accustomed to raking in money from frenzied betting on the NCAA tournament every March. Oddsmakers said the first four days of March Madness typically generate even more wagered money than the Super Bowl, which of course is the most lucrative single day of the year for sportsbooks.

Normally, it's standing room only at sportsbooks in Las Vegas during March Madness. But with the coronavirus shutting down the NCAA tournament, betting revenue is down up to 99 percent. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Bogdanovich estimated that William Hill’s sports betting revenue is “1 percent or less” of its usual haul this week. The decline in wagered money has been almost as steep at the 30,000-square-foot Westgate sportsbook in Las Vegas, which lays claim to being the largest sportsbook in the world.

“I hate to put a number on it, but it’s certainly less than 5 percent,” said Jay Kornegay, Westgate’s vice president of race and sports operations. “Normally this week we would be preparing for large crowds and all the different types of propositions. Instead we’re looking at the Ukrainian soccer league.”

The grim outlook for sportsbooks the next few months reflects the forecast for the gaming industry as a whole until the coronavirus is under control.

MGM Resorts, the Wynn and the Cosmopolitan were among the Las Vegas casinos that had already announced temporary plans to close even before Tuesday night’s edict from Nevada governor Steve Sisolak. Now, the rest of the casinos that light up the Las Vegas strip will also go dark, just as casinos in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and other states already have.

“My ultimate goal here is to come together as Nevadans to save lives,” Sisolak said Tuesday night while announcing the closure of the state’s nonessential businesses. “That requires aggressive strategies aimed at mitigating community spread. Medical professionals have made it abundantly clear that there is no treatment. While a vaccine is being developed, we don't have time to waste. At this time, we must act aggressively and decisively to protect ourselves, our families and our community."

Whereas regulatory standards limit Las Vegas sportsbooks to wagers that are easily quantifiable, overseas bookmakers have the freedom to get more creative with their offerings. Bovada is taking full advantage of that in its efforts to entice online sports bettors to keep placing wagers even while the NBA, NHL, MLB and other major American sports remain shuttered.

Customers at Bovada can place bets on when Bernie Sanders will drop out of the presidential race, which Westworld character will be the next to perish or what Wednesday night’s winning power ball number will be. The online sportsbook is now even offering gamblers the chance to bet on the weather. 

“Our big challenge is how can we find a way to put up as much on the site as we had before,” Bovada head oddsmaker Pat Morrow said. “The answer is we probably can’t, but if we keep pushing ourselves toward that, we’ll have a compelling offering and we can get as close as possible to business as usual.”

The weather bets — for example, what the peak temperature in cities across America will be each day — appealed to Bovada because bettors prefer quick-turnaround bets rather than ones that tie up their money for weeks or months at a time. Morrow’s team has begun to study seven-day forecasts and the farmer’s almanac every day to offer the most accurate possible line.

“We’re not just licking our finger and sticking it up in the wind,” Morrow said. “We’re definitely not weather experts, but probably by the end of the week we’ll be a little bit better at it.”

Some of the obscure wagers that Las Vegas oddsmakers have offered the past few days are just as unfamiliar to them as predicting the weather is to Morrow. Staff members have taken a crash course on Argentinian soccer or Australian rugby, for example, in an effort to make sure that close to even money will come in on both sides of whatever line they post.

Luckily for sportsbooks, most bettors aren’t any more well-versed in those sports than oddsmakers are. One experienced bettor drew a laugh from Kornegay when he tried to place a horse racing bet at the Westgate window over the weekend but didn’t know how to call out what he wanted. 

“He was a skilled sports bettor but he just wasn’t versed in horse racing,” Kornegay said. “We haven’t had too many laughs in the last week or so, but that was some comic relief.”

With casinos temporarily closed, sports largely on hiatus and the number of obscure leagues playing on dwindling by the day, it’s likely to be a barren spring and summer for sportsbooks no matter how creative they get with their online offerings. Even so, oddsmakers are confident that this will be a temporary industry setback rather than an enduring one. 

“It’s a short-term punch in the gut for us economically just like it is for the rest of America, but I think we’ll recover,” Bogdanovich said. “I don’t think there will be any major lasting ramifications in the long run.” 

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