NCAA football could return in the fall. Or next spring. Or not at all during the 2020-21 academic year. Such is the havoc wrought upon NCAA sports by the coronavirus pandemic.
And yet, while COVID-19 rates spike throughout the South and Southwest and the nation’s seven-day average of positive tests creeps upward of 60,000 per day, the Big Ten has emerged as a leader in college sports’ quest for some semblance of normalcy. Last Thursday, the conference became the first to announce its plan to eliminate non-conference competition and move to a 10-game schedule limited to Big Ten opponents.
In a press release, the conference explained how keeping games in-house could help the league complete its season: “By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current, evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.”
The next day, the Pac-12 announced a similar plan for member schools to play conference-only schedules, and the rest of college football’s Power Five conferences — the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 — are expected to follow suit.
In a follow-up interview on the Big Ten Network, conference commissioner Kevin Warren cautioned that “we may not have sports in the fall” and “we may not have a college football season.” Meanwhile, thanks to surging COVID-19 rates and concerns over states’ ability to contain the virus, the option of postponing the NCAA football season until spring 2021 has gained momentum.
Whether Big Ten football resumes in fall 2020, spring 2021, or not at all in the upcoming academic year, the sport’s uncertain future could have major effects on Michigan’s nascent sports gambling industry, which launched at Detroit’s three casinos in March and took bets for only a week before being shut down by the pandemic.
College football’s doomsday scenario
If Warren’s warning that there may be no Big Ten season in 2020-21 comes true, legal sportsbooks at the Detroit casinos and the 23 tribal casinos operating in Michigan will lose a major source of sports betting handle.
Not all states provide figures on the percentage of overall wagers placed on specific sports, but a 2017 analysis compiled by the UNLV Center for Gaming Research showed that football accounted for the greatest share of sports wagers. In Michigan, residents’ deep-rooted allegiances to Michigan Wolverine and Michigan State Spartan football could make the portion of sports handle bet on college football even greater than in Nevada, which lacks in-state powerhouse programs.
So if COVID-19 forces the Big Ten to bow out of competition for the coming school year, Michigan sportsbooks will likely miss out on tens of millions of dollars in handle. If conditions force the conference to scuttle the season before the end of 2020, the league’s decision might even slow the momentum for Michigan’s rollout of mobile sports betting.
Non-conference games down the drain
The Big Ten’s cancellation of its teams’ early season non-conference schedule means that Michigan sportsbooks will lose the handle associated with now-kaput marquee matchups like Michigan at Washington, Miami at Michigan State, and Ohio State at Oregon.
A far greater toll, however, will fall upon the smaller programs that count on late-August squash matches against Power Five conference teams for huge chunks of their annual budgets. Mid-American Conference teams like Central Michigan, which had been promised $2.15 million — one-third of the annual budget for Chippewa football — for games against Nebraska and Northwestern, are suddenly facing financial crises that could cripple their athletic departments.
Which means that sentimental alumni wishing to bet a dollar on Central Michigan’s national championship hopes at +250,000 odds at FanDuel Sportsbook might as well hold onto that greenback, because without payments from major conference opponents, programs like Central Michigan may not be able to participate in the upcoming season.
Outlook for spring football
If COVID-19 stifles NCAA football’s efforts to return this fall and the sport manages to reboot next spring, it’s possible that Michigan sportsbooks could benefit from the postponement.
As of now, the Michigan Gaming Control Board plans to implement mobile sports betting in early 2021, which means that the state’s gamblers would have to wager in person at casino sportsbooks (if they’re open) during a traditional fall season. If Big Ten football gets delayed until the spring, when online betting should be up and running, then the state’s overall handle would be all but guaranteed to receive a major bump. (In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, online bets account for upward of 80% of the states’ overall sports handle.)
Bettors, however, might be wise to hold off on early futures bets until college football figures out when its season will occur. Many of the country’s best players like Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase could decide to sit out the spring season to protect their status as projected top-5 picks in the 2021 NFL draft. And without Fields, Ohio State’s +280 national championship odds at FanDuel look a lot less attractive.
For Michiganders, though, a $20 losing bet might be more than worth it to jinx the Buckeyes.
Photo by Rick Osentoski / USA Today Sports
Subscribe to get the latest MI online gambling news to your inbox.