Harry How/Getty Images/AFP
Harry How / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP
It was pretty easy to take the existence of constant live sports for granted but a little thing like a global pandemic and hundreds of thousands of resulting casualties has made us appreciate the athletes that put their bodies on the line for our pleasure. Through all of the misery of this historic, unprecedented time, a glimmer of positivity comes our way this weekend in the form of live sports returning with UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Florida.
With the sporting world effectively shut down by COVID-19, sportsbooks around the world were predictably suffering. The NFL Draft provided a little relief, bringing in 5 times the number of bets a usual Draft reports, but it was just an appetizer, a primer of things to come. It has been a long time coming, but combat sports seem to be the trigger that may just kickstart the sports betting industry and make it viable once again.
A return to normal?
UFC 249 officially signals the start of live, face-to-face sports and a real, marketable, sellable event for sportsbooks to promote. NASCAR, German soccer, Korean baseball and even golf have set their return dates already with more to follow. For this upcoming weekend, all eyes will be on fighting and the UFC as brand new and old US sports betting markets start to crank up once again.
Although there will be no fans at any event in the foreseeable future in North America, TV audiences and the sports betting world has to be thrilled with the prospect of watching and wagering on something other than Table Tennis or computer simulations of the games we love.
The “new normal” will include fan-less venues, medical screenings and antibody testing, self-isolation for fighters, frequent temperature tests, intense sanitization and separately scheduled weigh-ins – pretty standard really! But once the bell rings and the octagon doors are closed, it should be back to the norm of people trying to knock each other’s heads off!
The UFC once again proves to be hard-core
Dana White originally hoped to just forget about COVID-19 altogether. He had visions of UFC 249 taking place April 23 but travel issues and perhaps some common sense got in the way of that. Then White secured what he called "Fight Island", a secluded, secretive spot where fights could go as planned during the pandemic. Push back from ESPN and Disney plus… you guessed it… a little common sense derailed those plans.
But here we are with the second Saturday in May officially deemed a jumping-off-point for the UFC and sports in general. Top-ranked Tony Ferguson rides a 12-fight win streak in as -175 favorite against a dangerous Justin Gaethje who is listed as a +150 dog. The co-main event has Bantamweight Champ Henry Cejudo (-220) taking on Dominik Cruz (+180) in what should be a thrilling affair.
The rest of the UFC 249 card is solid as well.
It couldn't come soon enough
Sports betting in US dropped more than 65% from February thanks to the cancellation of events such as March Madness, which accounted for $495 million in bets in Nevada alone last year. March's total US handle came in at $604.8 million, down 45% from last year at this time. Revenues also took a hit in March, falling 58% from February to just $37.8 million and 56% from this time last year.
April's numbers haven't come in quite yet but expectations are for a blood-bath. April saw zero major sports with the NFL Draft as the only bankable event on the calendar. It looks like May might bring some money into US sportsbooks however and it couldn't come soon enough.
The UFC will attempt to prove to the sports world and sports betting public that sports can resume with appropriate precautions. While many see Dana White’s desire to carry on as a sick obsession, others view it as a good dry-run for the eventual full return to sports as we know and bet on it.
If things go well, others will follow. If things go badly… MLB, the NBA and even the NFL will be looking hard at returning too quickly. What the next few months looks like in terms of sports and sports betting is on the line Saturday night. It will be interesting!