David Murphy: Russian ping-pong? Belarussian soccer? In the age of coronavirus, sports gamblers find a way

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The current pandemic is causing all of us to wrestle with some of life’s most difficult questions: What day is it? What drawer do I keep my pants in? Were there really four bottles in that box of wine?

And that’s just before noon.

In that sense, the last three weeks haven’t been any different for guys like Johnny Avello than they have been for the rest of the northern hemisphere. Except, they also happen to be three of the most important weeks on his professional calendar. See, Avello is in charge of the sportsbook operation at DraftKings, which these days is a lot like being in charge of the ice cream machine at a Cross Fit convention. He has a lot of hungry customers, but not much for them to eat.

“This is a strange time,” said Avello, who oversees DraftKings’ burgeoning mobile betting operation. “We’ve never been in a position like this where the entire world was shut down.”

I called Avello last week after a degenerate buddy of mine forwarded me a link to a livestream broadcast of a Ukrainian table tennis tournament with a website that looked like the sort of thing that would land my IP address in the next Mueller report.

It’s great, my buddy explained. You can bet on each point. Interesting, I replied. Didn’t your wife just have a baby?

I was curious how many other people had buddies who were neglecting critical stages of their children’s development in an attempt to restore some sense of normalcy to their March. The answer, according to Avello, is more than you might guess.

“It’s created quite a bit of handle,” Avello said. “We’ve experimented with it quite a bit.”

He paused for a moment before continuing.

“Hopefully,” he said, “we won’t have to keep experimenting.”

Avello has seen a lot in his four decades in the business. A native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. who grew up watching the ponies run at Saratoga, he learned how to deal cards after a stint in college and then headed west to Vegas. He arrived in town driving a 1969 Buick Skylark packed with all of his earthly possessions and landed a job as a dealer at the Nevada Hotel. After a stint selling insurance, he returned to the casino business, this time writing tickets in the sportsbook. By 1990, he was running the sportsbook at Bally’s. Fifteen years later, he moved to the Wynn, where he remained until DraftKings recruited him to head up its mobile betting operation.

Avello has guided books through plenty of economic shocks through the years. Strikes, lockouts, corrections, recessions. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 may have been the most trying time, with the NFL taking a week off and the travel industry grinding to a standstill.

“But we came back from that,” Avello said. “A couple of weeks and we were back in action.”

Now, the action is limited almost entirely to the Eastern Bloc. They are still playing soccer and hockey in Belarus. And, apparently, the Russians love their table tennis.

“It’s one of those sports where, as an oddsmaker, you will make your talent better as you continue to do it,” Avello said. “It’s the same for the bettors. As you bet it, you get better at it because you get to know the players and rules better.”

The ongoing sports hiatus comes at an inopportune time for DraftKings, which expects to become a publicly traded company this week when it completes a complex merger with sports gambling technology firm SB Tech and Diamond Eagle Acquisition Corp. When the deal was first announced, the Boston-based company expected to be heading into April riding a wave of March Madness revenue, with the NBA playoffs and MLB regular season further boosting its books. Now, the gambling world is like the world at large, staring down a summer of uncertainty.

At the same time, the mobile gambling industry is still in the early stages of its growth phase in the United States. Like their chief competitors at FanDuel, Avello and his team at DraftKings have plenty to keep them busy. While online sports wagering is currently legal in only six states, 11 others have legalized on-site betting. By 2021, DraftKings expects that 20% of the country’s population will be able to participate in legal online sports wagering.

For now, the big question is if sports will return at all in 2020. The NFL has given no indication that it believes its season is in jeopardy; President Trump reportedly told league commissioners in a recent conference call that he wants them to play as scheduled.

“I certainly don’t have a crystal ball, but I feel confident that football will go as normal,” Avello said.

Until then, we should all remember to take a few moments to give thanks for what we have. Whether it’s ping-pong in Russia or third-division soccer in Belarus, these past three weeks have reinforced one of world’s most fundamental truths. It all goes great with wine.


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