Virtual sports, minor leagues atop the sports betting menu
While the world is grappling with the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, sports fanatics are discovering that they cannot turn to their favorite sport to help them distract from the day to day realities of life. All the major team sports have ceased operations indefinitely along with the NCAA and even the major individual sports like NASCAR, Formula 1, Indy Car, tennis and golf have suspended events until Covid-19 is contained. And if the experts are right, sports could be on hiatus until the end of the summer or even longer. Of course sports isn't the main thing on people's minds, nor should it be, as people get infected and die and the world struggles to find health care essentials like ventilators, masks and gowns, but the reality is that people are stuck in their houses due to lockdowns and stay at home orders and they simply can't venture out other than to buy groceries or pick up prescriptions. And, there is only so much coverage of the coronavirus one can watch or read about before they go stir crazy. For that reason, many sports fans are looking to other options that can provide some release.
The majority of Russian sports are still going ahead, as are games like soccer and cricket in Africa, South America and the Central American countries, which seem to have been hit far less than the remainder of the world, and in Australia, Australian Rules Football is still playing. That shouldn't be overly surprising since the virus seems to be temperature sensitive and those countries, save for Russia are all in very hot climates. For that reason, there are reports that interest in the rest of the world for Australian League Football has skyrocketed and similarly betting on those events has increased. Most European books have always offered odds on Russian major sporting events, since they have Russian customers. But now, they are even offering bets on events like Nicaraguan women’s basketball, Tajikistan basketball, Nicaraguan and St. Nevis soccer and Russian table tennis. And by all accounts wagers on those events are coming in from customers everywhere. Moreover, there are odds up for the Western Florida Golf League, which is a tiny series that offers a $2,000 top prize to the tournament winner. And more shockingly, sports books have odds up for the Minor League golf series, which is a low cost buy-in tournament which allows golfers to get noticed by the PGA. Brooks Koepka and Lexi Thompson were promoted to the lower tier of the PGA Tour from that series and Brooks Koepka’s brother Chase Koepka is playing in that series, which is taking place at Fox Club Golf Course Monday and Tuesday. Never have these events been offered for betting, but it seems many bettors are desperate to watch and wager on golf and the books are only too happy to oblige. The tournaments can apparently be viewed on the tours' official sites.
Despite the increase in interest for those sports, the majority of sportsbooks realize that any real betting will have to focus on sports where bettors can identify the athletes. And that has come to fruition thanks to virtual sports and athletes that are willing to take part in the virtual games. 5Dimes is offering odds on NBA2K league games, an e-Sports venture between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive which the company has never offered before and DraftKings had a free contest on Sunday for an NBA simulated game between New Orleans and Memphis with a $250 top prize. E-sports betting is nothing new, and in fact has been quite popular, but it has always involved tactical games like League of Legends, Dota2, StarCraft and Call of Duty. Sports video games were never available for wagering.
Auto Racing goes virtual
Even more bizarre, the major auto series indicated they would show telecasts of iRacing events not only featuring real drivers, but actually being played by those drivers. On Sunday, the first iRace took place in NASCAR on a simulated race from Homestead Motor Speedway in an event called the Dixie Vodka 150, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series Invitational event.
The race was televised on Fox Sports and featured Fox TV’s regular broadcasters Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon, along with Clint Bowyer, who also raced. The telecast showed the drivers with headsets, steering wheels and pedals and watching and playing on TV and the announcers were calling the broadcast like it was a real race. It even included a national anthem and an invocation by a pastor who prayed for the health and welfare of individuals and especially the health care professionals dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak. There was money paid to any non-series driver should they win and some sponsors even agreed to pay the drivers money for advertising their products. If the reports on the Internet are to be believed, over a million people tuned into the iRace and in a chat with a friend I have at one of the larger sportsbooks, the betting on the race was "shockingly high". The bets were limited to $200 and in the end Denny Hamlin at 10/1 odds beat Dale Earnhardt Jr and Timmy Hill, a lower tier racer who struggles to qualify for real races let alone win them. To Denny Hamlin's credit, he gave a $5,000 donation to those that are affected by Covid-19 in Florida by winning the race as well as $100 for each lap he led. The official viewership numbers should be announced later this week.
Indy Car has announced that they will be following NASCAR's lead and starting next Saturday at 4 p.m. ET they will be showing an iRace at a venue chosen by a fan vote. Fans can even choose tracks that aren’t really on the schedule anymore, but are in the game. Indy Car drivers along with lower Indy series drivers and past drivers, such as Juan Montoya, are competing. Indy Car also announced a 15-minute pre-race virtual autograph session where fans can send drivers pictures and the drivers will email them back an autograph using the computer’s paint tool. And Indy Car said they will have a post-race interview with the winner. Six races are already scheduled through May 2nd and every sportsbook I talked to have said they will be offering betting on the races. The races can be viewed on indycar.com, as well as on their YouTube and Facebook channels, and on iRacing’s Twitch.
Formula 1 originally wasn’t planning on doing anything but after some drivers indicated they were interested in participating in the Indy Car iRacing events, the series decided they had better do something as well and the first race was on Sunday, officially called the "Not the Bah GP," since the race used the Bahrain GP course. Only Lando Norris competed in the race from this year's regular drivers, although past series drivers like Stoffel Vandoorne, Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez took part. Golfer Ian Poulter raced also, but finished last. Guanyan Zhou, a Chinese driver racing in the F2 series won the race. Again, betting was said to be fairly good, but not as high as the NASCAR iRace, and Europe is far more focused on the Covid-19 crisis now as the virus is killing thousands in the F1 hotspots of Italy, UK and Spain. Other virtual races are planned for races that were cancelled. It is not certain whether other sports will follow suit, although there are suggestions that golf and tennis players are examining the idea. None of the team sports have given an indication they will join in on the virtual sporting events.
So in these trying times it's nice to know that there are still options to watch and wager on as we are cooped up in outer homes almost 24/7. It doesn't replace the need to stay concerned and vigilant as the world tries to cope with the devastation of Covid-19, but everybody needs some sort of distraction and these lesser sports and virtual sports offer that opportunity.