In a year in which the pandemic has upended every major sport, the arrival of NFL and college football brings unique challenges.
In stadiums without fans, does a home-field advantage even exist? And if not, is it worth laying three points for?
Will the lack of a preseason benefit offenses or defenses — or could both be equally rusty in the early going? Does that make overs or unders the smart play?
Will the money that would have been wagered on college teams that won't be playing this fall simply be rolled onto other college or pro teams, or will that money not be wagered at all?
And is it worth making season-long bets predicting who will win the Super Bowl if a team's quarterback or star running back could suddenly disappear from the lineup for weeks at a time after contracting the virus?
One thing seems certain: Sportsbooks are expecting a record-breaking season in terms of the amount of money wagered by an antsy public that has endured months of lockdowns and restrictions and only recently got the opportunity to resume betting on major American sports.
Betting on basketball has been particularly robust, and bookmakers expect football to easily eclipse that level of interest.
“It'll be a record season,” said Joe Asher, CEO of William Hill US. “People are spending more time at home because of the virus. There's less to do. They're not going to concerts, they're not going to sporting events, they're not going to the movies. They are watching sports on TV and betting on them.”
“I'm expecting a stellar season out of football,” added Johnny Avello, head of sportsbook for DraftKings. “Because of the virus, people are still going to be largely at home and are going to bet more than they were.”
Contradicting those predictions, the American Gaming Association on Wednesday released a survey showing 13% of Americans, or more than 33 million people, say they plan to bet on football this year, legally or illegally. That's down from 15% who said they planned to do so at the start of last season, but it also includes informal office pools, something not measured by commercial sportsbooks.
John Sheeran, director of trading for FanDuel, said his company expects betting lines across the industry to be more volatile, at least at first. He also expects bettors to wait until closer to kickoff before committing their money, just in case last-minute injuries and illnesses are disclosed.
A popular sports betting product is so-called futures bets, like predicting the winner of the Super Bowl or a division, which player might win the MVP award or the rushing title, and the number of games a team will win.
If someone bets on the Kansas City Chiefs to repeat as champions, but quarterback Patrick Mahomes comes down with the virus and misses, say, six to eight weeks, that could materially affect the Chiefs' season — and the outcome of a futures bet.
Sportsbooks are mixed on what, if any, impact the virus is having on futures bets. Some say they are not noticing a significant difference in the amount wagered, while others say they seem to be running below the level of past years.
“People seem to be more comfortable going week to week,” said Jay Kornegay, vice president of the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, where futures bets on the upcoming season so far are down more than 50% from the start of last season.
If a full season is not played, sportsbooks say they will cancel futures bets and return the money wagered.
With numerous college football conferences canceling their fall seasons, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, there will be fewer games to bet on. But most sportsbooks expect that money will simply flow to other college or pro games, with no net decline in handle, or the amount wagered.
If college football can make it through to an eventual national championship game, “I would expect the numbers to be absolutely huge,” said FanDuel's Sheeran, a sentiment echoed by many other sportsbooks.
Most, but not all, NFL teams plan to play in stadiums without fans. That means not having to travel might be the only benefit of playing at home, which is generally worth three points in betting lines.
Fans are well aware of these new variables and are factoring them into their bets. Dustin Mills of Hanover, Pennsylvania, plans to stay away from large parlay bets — wagers on more than one game at a time — until he sees how teams fare at the outset of the season.
“Early on, I’m going to focus on teams with core groups of players that have played together for a few years as well as teams that are more veteran-driven,” he said. “Also for the first few weeks, I'm taking the over a lot more, as I don’t believe there was much tackling going on in camps, and obviously it’s more of an offensive-driven league.”
Follow Wayne Parry at https://twitter.com/WayneParryAC