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Gambling in the time of Coronavirus

How Covid-19 paralyzed the industry—and what gaming can do to cope

It was the week that changed everything. On March 11, the National Basketball Association suspended its 2020 season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for Coronavirus. That same day, the National Association of Broadcasters pulled the plug on its Las Vegas convention and the dominos started to topple. The next day the National Hockey League suspended its season as well. College basketball games played to empty auditoriums, then March Madness was canceled entirely. Major League Soccer first banned spectators, then games. Major League Baseball pushed back the start of its season by at least two weeks. The Masters golf tournament was postponed indefinitely, and the Boston Marathon and Kentucky Derby were pushed back to September. NASCAR cancelled its season, the PGA cancelled golf tourneys left and right, and even the Monte Carlo Grand Prix was scrapped.

Sports betting was kneecapped. Especially in states like Illinois and Michigan, where it had just gone live on March 9 (Illinois) and March 11 (Michigan). Not only did Covid-19 fears empty out sports books, there was precious little to bet upon anyway: Australian-rules football and rugby, Mexican football, the Brazilian UFC. As South Point Casino sports book director Chris Andrews told USA Today, “in our racket, people like to have action, so they’re getting some there.” Turkish football was said to be blowing up, too.

Pretty soon people didn’t have the leisure of sports books, either. On March 13, Montgomery County in Pennsylvania closed Boyd Gaming’s Valley Forge Casino Resort, the first private-sector casino to go dark in what would become a tsunami of closings sweeping most gambling-enabled states. Nevada tried to hang tough for a while but, on March 17, Gov. Steve Sisolak bowed to the inevitable and shut down the state’s casinos for 30 days. In a week, U.S. gaming had gone from a boom era, with double-digit revenue increases in many states, to a ghost industry and has propelled the usage of online casino betting. Online gambling and specially live casino are gaining popularity due to advanced technologies, increasing internet users and easy accessibility.

In the meantime, punters were encouraged to stay how and try Internet gambling. Unfortunately in the United States, this is just a Band-Aid. Only 10 states have it and it is mature in virtually only one of them, New Jersey. Last month, online casino in the Garden State grossed $52 million, with Tilman Fertitta’s Golden Nugget bagging more from online play than terrestrial action. Whether that’s the start of a trend remains to be seen.