Big 12 will fill void this college football season

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Make no mistake, sportsbook operators both in the Midwest and nationwide would much rather have a full Power Five slate of college football than the three-conference dance set to commence next month.

Games are games, and action is action. But the postponements of the fall seasons for both the Pac-12 and especially the Big Ten conferences don’t have those operators scrambling for their spreadsheets.

Brad Rhines, the executive vice president and chief strategic officer for Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in greater Des Moines, Iowa, said that Saturday wagers slightly eclipsed Sunday wagers during football season in 2019, albeit not by much. Prairie Meadows’ $132.1 overall million handle in the 2019-20 fiscal year dwarfed the next-closest Iowa competition.

So there will be a pain point, to be sure, when the Big Ten’s Iowa Hawkeyes don’t take the field for fall competition. But the Big 12 Conference’s Iowa State Cyclones are still charging toward a 10-game schedule and Rhines said overall media exposure drove action in several sports for the casino, which, along with the state at large, passed its one-year anniversary of legalized sports betting on Aug. 15.

“The biggest action is on the primary televised games and, really, any game featured heavily on TV (in the run-up to each Saturday),” he said. “That makes sense to us. Even though you have most programs having all games televised, the ones that are promoted and advertised become everyone’s bailiwick. So that’s where most of the action goes, closely followed by hometown games.”

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That baseline understanding leads into Rhines’ other observation about Midwest sports bettors: They’re not all that different from your average Las Vegas customer. The NFL is immensely popular, particularly the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. Despite the shutdown tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, Prairie Meadows surpassed its internal handle and revenue goals for the first year of operation, Rhines said. Since reopening in June, the casino overall has been nearing 90% of its originally projected revenue while operating at only 50% capacity.

And ultimately, he said, bettors aren’t automatically searching for value via the geography they know.

“Just because the Big Ten and Big 12 are here doesn’t mean that’s where all the action is,” he said. “A lower-end team in a big conference (can drive action) if customers believe a line is iffy. It predominantly depends on matchups and spreads.”

The refrain rings largely the same in Indiana, where a more robust sports wagering scene has blossomed since the Hoosier State launched last September and enacted a mobile policy in October that did not include an in-person registration requirement. The state passed the $1 billion mark in handle in July, and football-specific wagers were outstripped by basketball-specific bets by more than $37 million in handle ($267.8 million to $230.1 million), according to totals reported by the Indiana Gaming Commission.

A strong professional sports interest from the Chicago area drove a lot of so-called border interest to the state prior to Illinois’ coronavirus-interrupted wagering launch. That factor, along with the state’s overall sports makeup, doesn’t have an operator such as PointsBet, which launched its mobile services in Indiana in March and is nearing a suburban Chicago rollout in the coming weeks, in a panic over the loss of Big Ten markets.

“If these three conferences (the Big 12, Atlantic Coast and SEC) can go ahead, there has been substantial interest in lookahead lines for marquee games across the country, and we are able to build out prop markets as much as we possibly can,” said PointsBet spokesperson Pat Eichner.

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In Michigan, the bigger hurdle is sheer casino industry capacity, which has been severely hampered by the coronavirus. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed Detroit-area facilities to reopen Aug. 5 after more than three months of full shutdowns, but only at 15% capacity. And with no online sports wagering approved in the state, the logistical challenges will affect handles and revenues more than the loss of one conference’s football slate ever could.

The view doesn’t change much from the proverbial 30,000 feet, either, where William Hill US CEO Joe Asher is more focused on the conference contradictions than the bottom lines. William Hill is the sportsbook partner for Prairie Meadows and several other Iowa handle-drivers, in addition to having presences in Illinois and Indiana. Asher said the idea that two schools a mere 140 miles apart in the same state must follow entirely different fall protocols is nonsensical.

“It’s obvious that canceling the season is counterproductive,” he said. “I understand that there is political pressure and nervousness, but the idea that somehow, kids will be safer in an unstructured and unsupervised environment, where there is no incentive to be super-careful, is baffling.”

At DraftKings, which operates in Indiana and recently launched a brick-and-mortar location in western Illinois, the company released a pro forma revenue guidance for the second half of 2020 at anywhere from $500 to $540 million, a number that slightly beat Wall Street projections. The kicker there is that figure left college athletics entirely out of that figure, said company spokesman Stephen Miraglia.

So no matter how many (or few) college games play out these next few months, Asher, too, is confident in the long-term outlook for the U.S. industry.

“From a short-term business perspective, there can be a negative,” Asher said. “But it’s completely irrelevant in the bigger picture.”

About the Author
Danny Lawhon

Danny Lawhon

Danny Lawhon is based in West Des Moines, Iowa, and has maintained a diverse sports journalism career for more than a decade, including with the Des Moines Register. A native of northwest Missouri, Danny earns his betting money as a professional musician.

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