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How COVID-19 Impacts Sports Betting Today & Into the Future

by July 23, 2020

The MLB and NBA season return amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and it leaves fans and sports bettors everywhere hungry and excited for sports to be back. As excited as I am for the season, being skeptical of how both leagues will organize, the willingness to make adjustments throughout the season, and the process of protocols and players returning after having all this time off.

With COVID not going away, it leaves bettors and me wondering: Does making a futures bet make any sense with all the uncertainty? What would the betting odds look like if an impact player opted out or had to sit out an extended period? Does live betting become more intriguing for bettors as futures betting becomes more uncertain, and will sportsbooks start to offer more live betting options?

I spoke with Chris Altruda, a Sports Betting Industry Analyst for Pennbets.com, and we both had plenty of thoughts on how the 2020 sports calendar will go, and some options that could become the new norm with sports betting in the MLB and NBA these next two months, and NFL and NHL when they return to action.

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COVID Impact on MLB

Altruda believes, “We will see more openers in baseball this season, and it becomes a common trend in the MLB,” he added, “once injuries happen, and a pitcher like Aroldis Chapman misses two weeks, for example, it becomes an entirely different scenario. He must re-condition himself, and then it raises the possibility of how does ‘dead-arm’ impact these pitchers during the short season after re-conditioning?”​

There are so many factors that go into playing 60 games in 66 days that may not be taken into account for futures betting. Pitching may be the most important, next to COVID testing. Players will be tested every other day, and a positive test is going to impact teams lineups, rotations, and gameplans for more than just that day, or series, but possibly up to two weeks.

The MLB will play more interleague games to limit traveling for COVID reasonings, playing 40 of 60 games against division opponents. This move will undoubtedly increase the safety of players, but teams with deeper pitching will be the real winners of the 2020 season.

The Toronto Blue Jays​ will not be playing their home games in Toronto because they have to travel in the U.S. No replacement site has been officially announced, but it has to come pretty quickly considering their first home game is July 29.

There have been talks that the Baltimore Orioles​ can be a host, and Buffalo, their minor league affiliate, is attempting to get in on the action. Canada refusing to let the Blue Jays play their home games is shocking, but very understandable when trying to contain COVID. There’s also the fact that any player can test positive and be forced to sit.

Imagine the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves being neck and neck for the NL East crown, and Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg test positive for COVID. Now, they have the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets the final week of the season, while the Braves have the Miami Marlins and Boston Red Sox.

Positive tests are going to make or break some teams seasons, putting them behind early and playing catch up late in the year, or coming at the worst time when a team or individual is playing well and forced to sit. The solution to that major problem is using openers more often. Teams with better bullpens have the advantage, but there have an increasing amount of relievers being used as openers and two to four pitchers playing before the closer is activated.

A team like the Tampa Bay Rays that used Ryan Yarbrough and Ryne Stanek like they did last season is an advantage because of his ability to give them multiple solid innings before a deep bullpen takes over.

Yarbrough had a stellar rookie season in 2018, throwing 147 1/3 innings with an ERA well below the league average (3.91), and finishing fifth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. He only made six starts, the fewest for a pitcher with as many innings pitched since 1986 and in 2019, he started 14 games pitching 141.2 innings and tossing out a 4.13 ERA.

In his two seasons and 20 starts, he is 27-12 in 66 games total, and slowly becoming the example of an opener in baseball. Another example of a Rays pitcher who was an opener, Ryne Stanek,​ was used as an opener, starting 27 times last season​ in 55.2 innings pitched, and ended his Rays season with an 0-2 record.

Interestingly enough, the MLB’s highest-scoring inning has traditionally been the first inning, and having a bullpen that can replace starters is key to success. Two teams that made that used openers last year were the Milwaukee Brewers and Dodgers. For the Brewers, no pitcher threw 160 innings last season, and 12 pitchers made an appearance in at least 25 games.

They had six pitchers deemed a starter in 2019, and they all pitched at least 87 innings in at least 19 appearances and four relievers that played in between 52 and 83 games. They had a plethora of arms ready to go each game for a few innings, and if not for their NL Wild Card loss, we would have witnessed the opener used plentifully from the Brewers.

The Dodgers had three studs last season in Clayton KershawHyun-jin Ryu, and Walker Buehler, and their fourth, Rich Hill, was dealing with injuries so, in the postseason, they experimented with openers. In-Game 4 of the NLDS versus the Nationals up 2-1, the Dodgers played six different pitchers all for less than three innings to avoid wearing out their core three, and in turn, they lost 6-1.

The next game, a 2-2 series-deciding contest, the Dodgers went back to Buehler for six innings and brought in Kershaw, who allowed two home runs to blow a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning before a walk-off grand slam in the 10th ended their World Series hopes. The opener didn’t work much for them, but in 2020, they’re a unit that will implement this trend.

Being an “educated and informed bettor” is one of the essential factors in futures betting, Altruda states. Ways to educate yourself is who to follow on social media local newspaper reporters for the team you’re thinking of backing, or go to the website of the local paper a few times a week. The local reporters are just as educated and, more often than none, know a tad bit more information on what’s going on with a player’s situation before the national media gets ahold of it. numberFire offers daily updates on player news that are helpful.

For baseball and basketball, especially on FanDuel, the betting opportunities are endless, and you have a ton of in-game odds and possible experiences after each batter or point scored. For futures betting, there is more of a limitation and difficulty to depict a winner, but the odds are often substantial.

In MLB, the best advice that can be given for a futures bet is to pick a team with a deep bullpen that could survive a couple of positive COVID tests. Still, in the NBA, that becomes even more difficult with players making contact with each other every moment.

Load Management and now COVID

The NBA is the next team to resume their season after a pause due to COVID, and both leagues will essentially be the guinea-pigs for this unparalleled time. There are notable players to sit out of the leagues 22-team restarts, such as Bradley BealAvery Bradley, and Spencer Dinwiddie. The league’s “bubble” in Orlando will be an eight-game schedule before the standard seven-game postseason format ensues. The league will stretch from Jul. 30 into August and perhaps early October, with hopes of the 2020-21 season to begin Dec. 1.

The league had to deal with “load management” over the past two seasons after it became a popular topic in the NBA towards the end of the 2018-19 season. Load management took full flight in 2019-20, and the Los Angeles Clippers have become the face of load management after resting stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to preserve them for the postseason.

The effects of load management, however, go further than just the court, hitting hard with the fans and bettors alike. Now, that entire plan set to keep these guys ready for the playoffs is out the window due to the three-month hiatus.

Players have been training and practicing attempting to get back into game shape, but how quickly can they? How about the players that had COVID in the past and are clear of symptoms? How will they adjust, and how will their bodies post-COVID?

Those are questions remained unanswered, but they will impact the present and, ultimately, future betting. For futures betting in the NBA, right now, the Milwaukee Bucks (+240) and Los Angeles Lakers (+260) are the favorites to win the NBA Finals and meet (+300), something NBA fans anticipated all season. With COVID still circulating, how will the favorites and their odds be impacted?

If it’s game six of the Western Conference Finals and the Lakers trail the Clippers 3-2, LeBron James tests positive and has to sit out a potential series-clinching game that severely impacts the NBA Finals money. Will there be updated odds following each game, or series?

Will there be more specifications for futures betting this season, for example, an option that LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard must play 70% of the games, meaning at least four of five or five of seven?

That’s a stretch, but betting on futures has become more difficult than ever with all the uncertainty surrounding each league. With 12 players on an active roster, losing one or two players in the NBA is far more impactful than a few in baseball with their 40-man and 25-man rosters. The league could be wide open for a new conference champion or NBA Finals champion based on positive COVID tests alone.

Outlook for the NFL and NHL

The NFL and NHL have been waiting and watching patiently as other sporting leagues such as the MLS and UFC have been active. Time is coming for the NFL to make official moves, as players have taken to social media about their health protocols and contracts, something each league has taken an issue with. The NFL having 53-man rosters certainly could spread COVID like a wildfire, but what’s to say any of these sports won’t have that? 2020 could very well be the year any give competing team has a real fighting chance at a championship, even if they’re an afterthought now.

The NHL has reported to training camp, and only two players have tested positive for COVID; the same day, the NBA announced they had zero positive cases. The NHL waited until the last possible moment to pick its two hub cities and chose Edmonton and Toronto because they were deemed safest.​ All of the NHL will be in Canada for the resumption of their season, making the case as to why the hockey teams can play, but the Blue Jays can’t. 24 teams​ will suit up for the NHL return, and waiting in the wings is the NFL to see how all three major sports leagues unfold before their up to bat.

NFL players took to social media with the hashtag #WeWantToPlay, while the league tries to figure out how to keep its players safe from COVID in a physical contact sport. It’s unclear if the NFL will miss time, training camp, etc., but we do know that hope to cut preseason games down. The league canceled games to London and Mexico and will try to mimic the layouts the MLB and NBA have provided them. Until then, sit back, relax, and watch baseball and basketball until you can’t anymore.

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