The sportsbook industry has faced difficult, if not insurmountable, challenges in the past.
During the 2008 financial crisis, unemployment in Las Vegas peaked at 14.2%, far surpassing the national average (about 10%). As the subprime mortgage bubble burst, home prices cratered, leading to thousands of foreclosures throughout the Valley. At the same time, hotel vacancies surged as Americans with discretionary income shortfalls canceled trips to the entertainment capital of the world. Yet, somehow the Nevada sportsbook handle remained steady over the Great Recession.
Now, sportsbooks nationwide are reaching for grips in a brave new world. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, bettors continued to place sports wagers after the NFL took a brief, one-week break to honor the victims of the deadliest terrorist act in U.S. history. Vegas sportsbooks also stayed open in the immediate hours after the Route 91 Harvest Festival Shooting in 2017, when a gunman shot 58 people to death from the 32nd floor at the Mandalay Bay. As the global sports freeze nears its third month, Nevada casinos have been shuttered for more than 40 days. While Americans await the gradual reopening of a nation devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the timetable for the return of sports remains uncertain.
Elevated account withdrawals during nationwide crisis
Since the NBA temporarily suspended its season on March 11, a litany of major sportsbooks have dealt with elevated player account withdrawals from their sports wagering accounts, Sports Handle has learned through interviews with state regulators, Wall Street analysts, sportsbook executives, and other industry experts in recent weeks.
A high-level industry source has described the run on withdrawals, in combination with account closures, as the sportsbook community’s top concern as the industry navigates through unchartered waters.
At first, the books dealt with an initial wave of panic withdrawals triggered by Black Thursday, a day that saw at least eight major professional sports leagues worldwide suspend play due to coronavirus concerns. The panic has since subsided, sportsbook sources say, as bettors returned in droves for last week’s NFL Draft.
One top Las Vegas sportsbook is currently processing a slightly higher level of withdrawals in comparison with a normal period when the pandemic didn’t exist, a company executive told Sports Handle. The withdrawals were then offset by an increase in deposits ahead of the draft, the biggest event on the spring sports calendar since the NCAA canceled March Madness last month. At another sportsbook, net deposits (deposits minus withdrawals) remain healthy in a positive direction, easing any fears of a potential doomsday scenario.
Large-scale account redemptions, while not an apples-to-apples comparison, are akin to a bank run during a period of intense economic distress. During the 2008 Iceland debt crisis, British depositors withdrew $272 million in deposits from Landsbanki, the nation’s second-largest bank, on a single weekend. Despite the initial withdrawals, the sportsbook industry, at the moment, appears nowhere close to encountering a situation as dire.
Withdrawal trends since the outbreak
A sportsbook executive said in a phone interview with Sports Handle that he has not seen a single limit withdrawal of $25,000 since the start of the outbreak. Despite the transaction limits, a customer hypothetically could withdraw $100,000 from an account in five separate transactions of $20,000. But there aren’t any indications that such activity has occurred over the last six weeks.
In Rhode Island, sports betting patrons withdrew a total of $411,491.62 from March 11 through April 18, according to figures compiled by the Rhode Island Department of Revenue. Since the outbreak hit the East Coast, one customer took out $20,000 in a single transaction, the largest Rhode Island withdrawal over the period.
During a four-day span, starting on March 11 when the NBA suspended its season temporarily, customers pulled more than $162,500 from their respective accounts. For the week ending March 14, customers withdrew $286,154.95, a 19.7% spike over the Rhode Island weekly average, dating back to Sept. 8, 2019. Since the end of March, weekly account withdrawals have declined considerably in line with national trends across the industry.
Weekly sports betting account withdrawals in Rhode Island:
- Week ending March 14: $286,154.95
- Week ending March 21: $78,624.74
- Week ending March 28: $45,615.57
- Week ending April 4: $46,603.80
- Week ending April 11: $45,457.30
- Week ending April 18: $32,624.75
The figures account for withdrawals of both deposits and winnings, according to the Department of Revenue. Over the period, the key data point is the four-day figure in mid-March when the NBA abruptly halted the season. On an average week during football season, Rhode Island withdrawals include payouts from cashouts of winning parlays and straight bets. In March, however, the withdrawals reflect the uncertainty on the return of professional sports as the global sports calendar suddenly appeared bare.
Also keep in mind that the size of the Rhode Island market, consistent with its population, pales in comparison to others on the East Coast such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Since Rhode Island launched mobile sports betting in September 2019, the state’s average sports betting revenue amounts to about 5% of that of New Jersey over the same period, a Rhode Island Department of Revenue spokesman said.
Response from regulators
The Nevada Gaming Control Board (GCB) issued a policy memorandum March 17 outlining a series of procedures for retail casinos operators to follow ahead of a state-mandated 30-day closure. When Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak issued an order on the same day closing all non-essential businesses across the state, it marked the first time that Nevada casinos went dark in more than five decades.
One section in the seven-page memo provides operators with guidelines regarding front money accounts, a term for casino accounts containing customer deposits. The procedures are designed to assist customers in the event they request a withdrawal of funds from a casino. Although Nevada licensed sports pools are required to maintain complete records of every deposit, withdrawal, and payout under state law, they are not required to submit a record of each transaction to the GCB. In other words, if a customer from Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas, removed $5,000 from a sportsbook account last month, the book is not compelled to report the withdrawal. The board does have the ability to audit every sportsbook licensee across the state.
The licensee should establish a process whereby patrons who want to collect their front money accounts, including those held in accordance with Regulation 5.225, and safekeeping funds before the property reopens, can do so. The submitted plan should detail this process, as well as how patrons will be made aware of the process. — Nevada Gaming Control Board policy memorandum, Section 11, March 17, 2020.
Since the global sports shutdown, Nevada has not received a single complaint related to a patron’s inability to withdraw funds from a sportsbook account, Nevada Gaming Control Board chair Sandra Douglass Morgan told Sports Handle. While Nevada customers have been refunded for NCAA 2020 college basketball futures, there still remains a possibility that the NBA and the NHL will resume their seasons. Those futures are still ungraded.
A customer service center operated by William Hill US is now reviewing Rhode Island player accounts weekly and transfer funds wagered on niche sporting events during the freeze. The Rhode Island Department of Revenue has not provided redemptions for funds wagered on events that have yet to be canceled, in accordance with its anti-money laundering policy, a department spokesman told Sports Handle.
Since the beginning of the shutdown, a regulator from another state has been in contact with a number of large casinos that run sportsbook operations, including one operator that focuses solely on sports betting. The companies have not brought up any issues related to withdrawals from a regulatory standpoint, the official said, but have expressed concerns from a business standpoint since “a lot of people have taken money” out of their accounts.
States that do allow mobile sports wagering are poised to benefit greatly upon the return of professional sports. As a well-respected sportsbook executive noted, mobile betting did not exist in Nevada during the last financial crisis, even as the statewide handle remained above $2.5 billion in 2008. Once virus mitigation restrictions are eased or lifted, customers leery of entering a casino can bet on sports from their couch. Over the last year, nearly 90% of all wagers on New Jersey’s legal sports betting market have been placed on mobile/online platforms.
“The Division is not anticipating significant withdrawals from sports wagering accounts,” a New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE) spokesperson wrote in an email to Sports Handle.
Digital solutions facilitate fast-cash payments
Before the nationwide casino shutdown, many customers avoided the hassle of entering a casino by conducting payment transactions online. Since mobile wagering has supplanted retail sports betting as the preferred option for bettors in jurisdictions where both are available, patrons have the ability to transact deposits and withdrawals digitally (although methods may vary from sportsbook to sportsbook).
“As a philosophy at BetRivers and PlaySugarHouse sites, we always go the extra mile to make it easy for players to withdraw their cash quickly and when they want. In fact, we approve the majority of our player’s cash withdrawals requests in real time,” Rush Street Interactive President Richard Schwartz said in an email. “We know that our players really appreciate our approach and it helps us to earn and retain their trust, which is always one of our top priorities.”
Elsewhere, Nevada newcomer Circa Sports rolled out digital payment solutions technology that enables customers to load and withdraw funds into their account in a matter of minutes. Through Circa’s mobile app, customers can sign up for the Play+ functionality. From there, customers are able to link their bank account to the Circa app through Sightline Payments, a third-party digital commerce platform.
“It really was the ideal balance between getting customers to access their funds as quickly as possible and providing that service for someone who wants to bet with us right now,” Circa Sports Strategic Operations Manager Mike Van Ermen told Sports Handle.
Last year, four upstate New York casinos were allowed to launch retail sportsbook operations under existing state law. For sportsbook customers with difficulty paying their rent due to the pandemic, it could be distressing to be unable to pull funds from their accounts when their preferred casinos remain closed. However, the issue has not transpired at Rivers Schenectady in the Capital Region, since the casino does not allow sportsbook customers to maintain front money accounts, Rivers General Manager Justin Moore confirmed in an email.
Yet the lack of legal mobile sports betting in New York and Mississippi, among others, may mean betting volume is slow to come back when the sports calendar would otherwise permit.
Return to normalcy
Sara Slane, a former senior vice president of public affairs of the American Gaming Association, noted that the most forward-looking companies across the industry will use this period to continue to innovate and improve on technology build-outs already in place before the unexpected disruptions. Sportsbooks that demonstrated loyalty to employees by keeping them on the payroll during the shutdown might also be placed at an advantage. The task of training new employees is an expensive proposition, she explained, a dynamic that may occur if large swaths of furloughed workers pursue opportunities in other fields.
One encouraging sign for the sportsbook community is that the industry has demonstrated resilience before in the face of trying times. Over a five-year period between 2007 and 2011, the annual Nevada sportsbook handle remained in a tight range between $2.5 billion and $2.9 billion during the heart of the recession. Though a direct correlation has not been made between account withdrawals and sports wagering patterns, the trend indicates that sports bettors continued to wager at normal levels despite reductions in discretionary spending.
“I think every business in America has the same concern, not specifically with withdrawals, but discretionary income: Do you get your nails done at a salon or do you get them done at home now?” a veteran sportsbook executive said. “It’s a rippling effect across the entire business world. Do we have concerns? Sure, but it’s understandable. We expect it to slowly rise as we’ve seen in the past.”
Last week, 4.4 million more Americans filed for unemployment insurance, pushing total claims to 26.4 million over the past five weeks, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures.
One veteran sportsbook executive explained that a concern for the industry is not whether a large mass of customers removes funds now, but if they will return once the threat of COVID-19 is reasonably mitigated.
“The worry about them taking money out and not putting it back because they were laid off, or they are not as flush as they were a few months ago, that’s across the board,” he said. “That’s not only applicable for gaming, it’s applicable for retail sports gambling, sporting events, movie theaters, shopping centers, and everyone else.”
Conversely, another executive believes that a large percentage of bettors will return even if their wallets have shrunk. These are customers who spend a large portion of their entertainment budgets for practically all 12 months of the year on sports gambling. Instead of placing wagers on chess or Burundi soccer, the bettors can roll over their savings for the return of mainstream sports. Customers with hundreds of dollars in their mobile accounts will be able to bet within minutes once the next major event is announced, rather than complete a tedious process of transferring funds.
“With no sports to watch and not a lot to bet on, there is a certain degree of pent-up demand,” he said. “It’s never been easier to get to your money into a sports betting account and use this as entertainment.”
A steady stream of outflows could be curtailed if there are strong indications that a major professional league or two appears ready to return. A report surfaced April 22 that the NHL is considering resuming its season in July at a handful of empty venues at neutral sites throughout the country. It came one day after CNBC reported that the NBA could move the start of the 2020-2021 regular season back to Christmas Day to allow for the completion of the current season. The NBA is also planning on opening team practice facilities May 1 in areas where local governments have eased stay-at-home restrictions, ESPN reported.
JUST IN: NHL looking at restarting season in July.
Games would be played at 4 or 5 neutral sites with limited or no fans, according to Florida Panthers president Matt Caldwell.
On the conference call, he said this plan is not finalized.
— Andy Slater (@AndySlater) April 22, 2020
On the other hand, if one of the aforementioned leagues cancels its season or the NFL delays the start of the 2020 regular season by a few weeks, another wave of withdrawals could ensue.
Earlier this month, Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox unveiled a detailed plan for reopening two properties on the Las Vegas Strip by mid-May. Wynn plans on using non-invasive thermal cameras at every entrance to check the temperature of every individual entering the property. Under the plan, if an individual records a temperature above 100 degrees, he or she will not be allowed in. Wynn has proposed strict social distancing guidelines for table games and slot machines. Each individual will also be required to wear a mask inside the casinos.
Although Sisolak has not set a firm date for reopening the state, he has reiterated several times over the last week that the process will occur in a series of phases. Any individual casino reopening plans, such as the one proposed by Wynn, must be approved by the Nevada Gaming Control Board, the governor said.
Wynn Las Vegas has started to book reservations for Memorial Day Weekend, the Las Vegas Review Journal reported.
As I’ve said, we could flip the switch and turn the lights back on, but our experts predict – and experience in the world shows us – if we don’t do this in a controlled and informed manner, we’ll be hit like a tidal wave in two to three weeks. And I won’t do that to our State.
— Governor Sisolak (@GovSisolak) April 22, 2020
“A good friend of mine sent me a text that said if we open up May 1, June 1 or July 1, a year from now you’re not going to remember what date we opened,” Sisolak said at an April 22 news conference. “But you’re sure the heck going to remember if a loved one died of COVID-19.”
The Nevada Gaming Control Board also issued a six-page memorandum April 21 on procedures for casinos reopening after temporary closures due to COVID-19. The memo addresses guidelines for reconciliations on patron sports wagering accounts.
Procedures and verifications must be performed to ensure that all liabilities to patrons are correctly accounted for and reconciled from the time of the temporary closure to the time of reopening, including but not limited to incremental progressive amounts, safekeeping/front money/wagering account balances, player tracking point balances, race and sports futures/unpaids, payout receipts and wagering vouchers, etc. — Nevada Gaming Control Board, policy memorandum, Section 6. April 21, 2020.
As a sportsbook industry pioneer draws comparisons to other downturns in the business cycle, he recalled a conversation with his boss during the last financial crisis.
“I remember my boss telling me that the way we conduct business will never be the same,” he told Sports Handle. “I have the same kind of sense today. We might not conduct business the same way ever again.”
“I do believe we will be fine, I don’t know if that will be in six months or three years,” he concluded. “Who knows? No one really knows.”
Coming in Part II: A look at reserve requirements and whether patron funds are insured under a doomsday scenario of widespread sportsbook bankruptcies.