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How the pandemic has been a surprise boon for the online sports betting industry

Posted at 5:00 AM, May 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-18 18:52:44-04

CINCINNATI — Indiana sportsbooks scored almost a billion dollars in the last six months — more than eight publicly traded Tri-State companies. Those cashing in include names you know, including Facebook, Twitter and Pandora.

Even during a pandemic, the industry posted surprising revenues.

Sports betting changed March 11 live on national television, when the NBA paused and suspended its season. The coronavirus pandemic that paralyzed America silenced major sports, too. Even the NCAA canceled March Madness.

Casinos closed next.

Care to guess how much Indiana bookies scored? Try $74 million in March and $26.3 million in April.

"I am surprised at the volume it has brought," Johnny Avello, director of sports and race operations for DraftKings, one of six sportsbooks licensed in Indiana.

Johnny Avello
Johnny Abello, race and sports book director at the Wynn Las Vegas, talks about the odds on the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Sunday, March 15, 2009, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

So, what's even left to bet on? You'd be surprised. Sportsbooks see gamblers driving into the state using mobile apps or online portals to place bets on what used to be afterthought events like darts and table tennis.

"Over 50% of our bets are on table tennis," said Ron Shell, vice president of customer and insights for PointsBet, another sportsbook licensed in the Hoosier state.

Those apps, equipped with geo-tracking software, ensure that bettors only wager where it is legal. They also represent the fastest-growing part of the sports-betting business.

"You actually can track where people sign up from, and it isn't always from Indiana," Shell said. "You will get Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky."

Avello booked sports in Las Vegas casinos for 35 years. Now with DraftKings, he considers Indiana one of his heavyweight markets.

"We're surprised at the type of business that's come out of Indiana," he said. "When you compare it against others, it's right there with some of our top performers."

Eric Holcomb
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb places the first sport bets after sports betting became legal in Indiana at the Indiana Grand Racing & Casino in Shelbyville, Ind., Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019. Holcomb bet for the Indianapolis Colts to win the Super Bowl, the Indiana Pacers to win the NBA championship and the Indiana Fever to win their game tonight. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a federal ban on sports betting, 18 states allow it. Five more legalized it but have no active operators yet. Indiana opened to sportsbooks last September. Lawmakers hoped it would bring in $99 million in direct and indirect economic impact within the first year.

They saw more than $126 million in two months.

All of that comes with just six sportsbooks and 14 casinos licensed to operate.

There are 131 other companies registered to market sports betting, though. Among them are recognizable names like Facebook, Pandora, Twitter and the Indianapolis Star.

Then there are all the overseas companies lining up for a piece of the action.

"There's just so much pent-up demand," Shell said. "For years the only place you could place a bet was Vegas."

PointsBet is an Australian company that started four years ago. Now, they have operations in 10 U.S. states.

"In Indiana there is such a passion for sports," Shell said. "Everyone's coming out the woodwork to bet and this industry is going to have huge growth for at least the next 10 years."

There is, of course, another side.

"This is a slowly growing addiction and disorder that we were not aware of or that we didn't have as much research on even a decade ago," said Blake Huelsman, a counselor at the Center for Addiction Treatment in Cincinnati.

Huelsman counsels gamblers and worries what Indiana's windfall means for Ohio. The Buckeye state's house and senate each have pending bills that would legalize sports betting.

Before coronavirus surged, Gov. Mike DeWine did not hide his feeling while speaking to reporters in February.

"I think sports betting is coming to Ohio," he said. "We have questions that are public policy questions that need to be answered."

"What is this going to look like for us," Huelsman asked. "What's it going to look like for people that are like oh what is sports betting? Let me see if this can be fun. Let me see if I can make more money on this."

While Ohio debates, Indiana launched a self-restriction program. It allows gamblers to ban themselves from mobile or online betting for up to five years. The state also pays for gambling addiction treatment.

If Ohio and/or Kentucky passes sports betting laws too, Huelsman wants similar or better safeguards.

"We've been saying talk to your legislator and say we need to put some regulations on this," Huelsman said.

Indiana is all-in. Who's next?