The opening of the NFL season brought a huge weekend of gambling, and sports betting operators are confident that this will not be the high point of activity this season.
The recent sports gambling boom certainly hasn’t been limited to football. The sheer quantity of events held and games played in August led to New Jersey’s setting the all-time record for highest total sports gambling handle by any state in a single month. At $668 million, the total was more than double the $251 million wagered in August 2019.
Circa Sports Sportsbook Director Matthew Metcalf said that other sports, such as golf, that have experienced increased gambling action don’t compare to football, and that even college football has not drawn bettors’ interest quite like the NFL. The plethora of other sporting events this past weekend simply makes the massive NFL handle even more noteworthy.
“To be frank, [with the] NBA over those four days, we weren’t seeing the numbers that we were seeing previously in the NBA or what we saw [Tuesday] night,” Roar Digital VP of Trading Jason Scott said. “Football has a big brother position where it does steal the limelight and activity from other events.”
With the NBA and NHL playoffs taking place, as well as MLB games, customers had more to bet on during the week than normal, and therefore many waited until the day of the games to place their NFL wagers, according to William Hill traders. The bookmaker noted that customers waited until the hour before kickoff to place bets more than ever before.
“I really think the NFL will continue to ramp up as the NBA and NHL wind down. I think it’s just going to make the handle in that sport probably better than it’s ever been,” Metcalf said. “Baseball is always going on around this time, but the NBA playoffs and NHL playoffs are going on, and now you have the golf majors happening, and the Kentucky Derby last weekend, so it’s definitely kind of splitting up things.”
DraftKings set an all-time record for handle this past Sunday, overtaking the day of Super Bowl LIV from earlier this calendar year. In terms of active DraftKings users, it was the second biggest day of all time, behind only the Texans-Chiefs Thursday Night Football game three days earlier. DraftKings’s total NFL handle and number of wagers increased fivefold from the opening Sunday of 2019.
Even casino sportsbooks had big weekends despite reduced occupancy due to COVID-19. “The retail activity was incredibly strong. In dollar terms, it was up on last year, but in actual bet tickets it was down about 30%, which sounds bad, but occupancy in the hotels is down around 60%, so we certainly overshot there. What we did see was a lot of the larger customers were active,” Scott said. “Digital was through the roof.” Roar Digital’s online sportsbook app BetMGM had 12 times the number of bets and 18 times the amount of money wagered than Week 1 of 2019.
The Las Vegas-based Circa Sports’s total betting handle for Week 1 was roughly double what it was last year. The number of wagers placed roughly tripled, with max wagers increasing by an even larger multiple. These numbers came after uncertainty surrounding whether bettors would have disposable income to place on games, much less if the NFL would even play a season.
“Throughout the summer, we had these Week 1 lines for NFL up for probably the better part of two months and received very little betting action—that’s not out of the normal—they’re usually pretty slow, and then they start to pick up around mid-August, when people start watching NFL preseason games,” Metcalf said. “It was kind of like somebody flipped a switch. There was no real build-up. It was like, ‘It’s Sunday. Time to bet the NFL,’ and it went kind of from zero to 60.”
Scott said that MGM saw “a much more gradual rise” but that Sunday indeed saw more bets on a per game basis than the Thursday Night game. “Thursday might have come up a little bit quickly on some people without having preseason games and training camp,” Scott said.
Fox’s Week 1 Sunday football TV ratings were up year-over-year, and other networks experienced only a slight ratings dip despite overall broadcast TV usage being down 10% from the year-ago period, per Nielsen. There was certainly a “pent-up demand for football,” which DraftKings Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO Jason Robins listed as a factor in the company’s record engagement.
“The betting handle I would actually say was stronger, you know, because people hadn’t had that run-up, and maybe there wasn’t as good a college product that preceded the NFL,” Metcalf said. “I think they were really, really hungry for this level of quality competition.”
As the season progresses, Metcalf believes that whether any NFL players contract COVID-19 could dictate betting habits. “If after two weeks or three weeks there’s a sense that there’s not going to be a huge impact on games and we can trust who is going to play, and week-to-week we don’t have to worry about Tom Brady not starting or something like that, I think people will be more likely to start betting earlier in the week and betting more,” Metcalf said. “Gamblers as a whole don’t love uncertainty.”
Scott was confident that online handle records would be broken during the remainder of the season, and that retail numbers could remain strong due to the activity of large customers. “We took [a wager] of half a million dollars on the weekend, so if those guys get active and have two or three bets a week, they can make up for a lot of the other customers who can’t come due to COVID.”
Like all U.S. sports leagues, the NFL sees the potential for gambling to increase fan engagement. Last year, the league signed a three-year deal worth $30 million with Caesars, its first ever casino partner. Since then, the NFL has named DraftKings its official daily fantasy sports partner and agreed to allow teams in states with legal sports gambling to ink their own partnerships with sportsbooks and casinos, as well as build lounges in their stadiums.
Despite most stadiums being closed to fans this season, however, the numbers show that plenty of football fans found a way to experience an adrenaline rush in Week 1 without having to leave their own homes.