Big Ten Postponement Leaves Barren Sports Betting Landscape For Michigamblers

With the postponement of fall sports and the loss of UM Wolverine and MSU Spartan football seasons, Michigan bettors have few local options.
Michigan State Football Team

Fancy a bet on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans, Detroit Red Wings, or Detroit Pistons?

Tough luck.

With the Big Ten Conference’s decision Tuesday to postpone fall athletics — including NCAA cash cow college football — Michigan’s sports bettors are left with only MLB’s Detroit Tigers and, assuming the NFL can successfully stage a season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Detroit Lions, as the only local wagering options among major North American team sports.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” said Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren in a statement released Tuesday. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

The Big Ten, which was joined in its decision to postpone by the Pac-12, did not rule out “the possibility of competition in the spring,” according to the statement. After a roller-coaster 48 hours that included reports of all Power Five football conferences ditching the fall season, an aggressive push from college athletes and coaches to save the season (University of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh made a particularly strong appeal), and even a tweet from President Donald Trump urging the conferences to continue with fall football, the fallout from Tuesday’s announcements could affect the SEC, ACC, and Big 12’s efforts to continue with the fall season, the financial well-being of Big Ten and Pac-12 schools, and local economies from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Eugene, Ore.

But for sports gamblers in Michigan, the meaning of the Big Ten’s decision is clear — for the remainder of 2020, no legal wagers will be placed on Michigan Wolverines or Michigan State Spartans football games.

State Rep. Iden ‘disappointed,’ remains confident in online gaming rollout

State Representative Brandt Iden, an influential backer of Michigan’s sports gambling legislation, criticized the Big Ten’s decision. “I was deeply disappointed by the decision,” he said. “Even if you’re an MSU fan, like myself, one has to admit that Coach Harbaugh was right today when he and other coaches from around the league attempted to reason with the league using statistics, data, and science. He noted that there have been zero positive cases from his football team over the past 353 tests administered.

“Simply put,” Iden went on, “we can control this virus both on and off the field if proper social distancing precautions are put in place [and]  teams adhere to CDC recommendations and remain vigilant about regular testing. However, despite this unfortunate setback for the fall collegiate season, Michigan is moving forward with establishing our mobile sports gaming regulations, and I remain confident that we will be ready by the end of the year, with or without sports.”

Impact of local teams on sports betting handle

Michigan regulators may be committed to implementing online gambling by the end of 2020, but interest in betting from the state’s sports fans could soften if they have barely any local franchises to wager on. With Big Ten football out of the picture and the Detroit Pistons and Red Wings both having such dismal records that they weren’t included in their respective leagues’ restarted seasons, that leaves the MLB’s Tigers and NFL’s Lions as the state’s last major sports franchises standing.

It’s difficult to project how severely the dearth of local betting options will affect sports wagering in Michigan because legal sports betting is still so new to the state. The first bets were cast at Detroit’s casino sportsbooks on March 11, days before COVID-19 forced professional and college sports, the Detroit casinos, and much of the U.S. economy into a temporary shutdown. But even without the ability to assess the impact of Michigan’s lost college football, NBA, and NHL games on sports handle through direct before-and-after comparisons, trends in other states that have legalized sports betting suggest that local fandom and sports culture is an important driver of betting habits.

“We definitely see a home team bias across our different states, even if it varies a little bit depending on state and home team,” said Mattias Stetz, chief operating officer of Rush Street Interactive, the company that owns and has partnered with the Little River Casino in Manistee, Mich., to operate brick-and-mortar and online sportsbooks. “For example, last season we saw a very strong backing of the Steelers in the Pittsburgh area in the beginning of the season, but as Big Ben got injured it wasn’t as strong in the end of the season. Especially when the local teams are performing well, like both the Cubs and the White Sox in Chicago, we see a lot of local bettors backing them. The same story with the Blackhawks.

“We also see that different sports are more or less popular in different states,” Stetz continued. “Indiana is traditionally a strong college basketball state, and we see this in the numbers. Pittsburgh has relatively higher numbers for the NHL, while Philly sees more NBA handle than others. We’ve found that UFC seems to be very popular in Colorado and NASCAR seems to have many fans in Indiana.”

In Colorado, where the state took began taking legal sports wagers on May 1, when all major U.S. team sports remained sidelined due to COVID-19, betting on the Denver Nuggets “saw notable surges between when Colorado legalized during the league hiatus” and when the NBA returned on July 30, according to DraftKings spokesperson Parker Winslow.

Sports are a prime mover in Michigan culture — John U. Bacon, author of Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football, joked during a recent public radio interview that calls for Michiganders to wear masks in public would be more effective coming from coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Tom Izzo than from White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci. And, as is the case throughout much of the United States, football is king.

There’s no way to tell how much overall handle the state’s sportsbooks will miss out on thanks to the Big Ten’s postponement, but without rivalry games like Michigan-Michigan State and Michigan-Ohio State, without the weekly rituals of tailgating and following the Spartans and Wolverines, it seems likely that sports betting in Michigan this fall will be lighter than the state’s casinos and soon-to-open online sportsbooks had hoped for.

Lions and Tigers and … nothing else, oh my!

Until the NFL season begins in September, the Detroit Tigers remain the only local option for Michigan sports gamblers, and the team has already provided value on longshot future bets. Entering the season, experts predicted the Tigers would finish with the worst record in baseball, and their odds to win the World Series ranged from +30000 to +50000 at legal online sportsbooks.

Now, with the Tigers off to a promising 9-6 start and trailing the Minnesota Twins by half a game for first place in the AL Central, the Tigers’ championship odds are down to +25000 at DraftKings and BetRivers and +16000 at FanDuel.

A 160-1 underdog at 500-1 prices? That’s better than a sharp stick in the eye.

The true savior for legal sports gambling in Michigan and throughout the United States, however, is the NFL. If professional football can complete its season during the ongoing pandemic — without creating a safe-as-can-be bubble environment like the NBA and NHL have and MLB, notably, has not — then retail and online sportsbooks should be able to withstand the losses in handle on college football betting.

“NFL has always been king and it will always be king,” sports betting media personality Kelly Stewart told US Bets. “No college football is definitely going to hurt sportsbooks’ bottom line, but I think that just increases the number of bets and the size of the wagers placed on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday on the NFL.”

The downside — if COVID-19 outbreaks manage to shut down the NFL season — would be catastrophic. “If there’s no NFL football, I think we would see some dramatic closures around the country for sportsbook operators who have invested heavily in different platforms in different states,” Las Vegas-based Pushing the Odds host Matt Perrault told US Bets. “The expansion of sports betting would stop immediately. I think the application process for new licenses would stop immediately. I think there would be some really hard conversations here in Vegas about what the books look like and what their staffing would look like.”

Here in the Mitten, jokes about needing a year off from another futility-and frustration-filled season of Detroit Lions football may have been common in pre-COVID times. Now that the Lions are one of the last remaining options for sports fans and bettors in the state, though, Michiganders might want to take back those jokes.


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