What COVID-19 May Mean for Tribal Sports Betting in 2020 

Given the NCAA’s cancellation of March Madness, what does that mean for the sports betting industry?

If sports betting is the wave of the future for the gaming industry and specifically Indian gaming, that wave may be slightly delayed. Coronavirus, or COVID-19, has all but shut down sports all over the world, leading to the pretty fundamental problem that there can be no betting on sports if no sports are being played. 

The cash cow for sports betting, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, has been canceled outright. 

Meanwhile, the lead in a piece in the Johnstown (PA) Tribune-Democrat on Monday paints an already grim picture for the week that was supposed to see a bonanza of betting on the NCAA tournament: “On the FanDuel sports betting app on Monday, the top suggestion for possible wagers was a soccer game in Turkey. Other suggestions included Russian hockey and rugby in New Zealand.” 

William Hill’s Asher told Axios that his company was looking to certain fights, rugby and Mexican soccer to capture American wagering dollars.

Though legal sports betting is relatively new in the United States, the momentum was building throughout 2019. According to an Axios chart from December, 18 states have legalized or voted to legalize sports gambling, in addition to Nevada, where the business has been legal since 1949.

Tribes have been getting into sports betting at their own pace, and oftentimes ahead of the curve. On August 30, 2018, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw became the first Tribe to offer sports betting when it opened the Sportsbook at Timeout Lounge inside its Golden Moon Casino at Pearl River Resort in Choctaw, Mississippi. 

READ MORE: Mississippi Choctaws Debut Sportsbook 

Others, though, are delayed by compacts that would need to be renegotiated or state constitutions that would need to be amended. 

In a wrapup of the 2020 TribalNet conference, LegalSports.com stated unequivocally that “the Tribal impact on sports betting in many states is going to be significant,” but said that, overall, Tribes were moving at “a cautious pace.”

In a prediction that now seems unlikely, Charles Cohen of International Gaming Technology said in January that “2020 will be the year of Tribal sports betting.” 

“2019 solidified a good start in a few states, with trailblazers like Pearl River showing the tremendous potential benefits to Tribal properties, their customers and their people,” Cohen said. “Tribes across the country are looking at these successes, examining their compacts, calling their marketing teams and architects, and taking the temperature in their communities and surrounding states. … In 2020, Tribal operations may well come to define what U.S.-wide sports betting looks like.”

The old sports cliche, invoked when things go south on a season, seems apt: Maybe next year.

Tribal gaming’s “cautious pace” might be a blessing in disguise. The fact is, for fledgling sports betting operations, the timing of the virus couldn’t be worse on the tails of the cancellation of March Madness. 

Joe Asher, CEO of British bookmaker William Hill, told Fox News that the sports betting industry makes more money in the first three days of the NCAA tournament than it does off of the Super Bowl. Both the NHL and NBA have suspended their seasons; if the virus continues along its current path, it’s hard to see the betting-friendly playoffs and finals of either league taking place.

The fact that relatively few Tribes have their sports betting operations up and running means that many are spared the scenario of having launched a business into an industry stalemate. It’s not clear what established sports betting operations will do as the supply of sports pauses. 

For Indian gaming, on the cusp of a supposed sports-betting boom that has essentially been postponed, “maybe next year” isn’t such a bad place to be.