The sports betting industry is being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, as every major sports league is postponed for the foreseeable future. But there are silver linings: this year’s NFL Draft is expected to produce the largest handle ever, and horse betting popularity is skyrocketing.
Major races postponed
The Kentucky Derby has been postponed, but horse racing is one of the few sports still operating – albeit in limited fashion. Races are taking place at a handful of empty tracks around the country with socially distanced TV crews for FOX Sports and NBC Sports, and interest has soared: total horse racing viewership on Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2 and NBC Sports Network has increased by 206% in 2020 compared to this time last year.
As expected, that’s translated to an increased betting interest.
“Horse racing has been a welcome substitute for other events that are currently unavailable,” Fox Sports EVP Mike Mulvihill told the Associated Press. “Viewing of horse racing has tripled over last year. Online sign-ups for new bettors are up. Betting handle at the tracks we present is up. It’s been a nice bit of normalcy when the rest of the sports world is anything but.”
Horse racing is generally only popular between the Kentucky Derby through Triple Crown season; the Derby usually takes place the first weekend in May. Those who typically consume it in April are sharp fans and/or bettors, so it’s reaching a broader audience in 2020. It’s forced TV broadcasts to adjust.
Made for TV
“Hats off to our production and talent team: Literally within days they had shifted from talking to the fan that knew a lot about the sport to talking to and really educating the audience in ways in which we don’t normally do,” TVG CEO Kip Levin said.
The New York Racing Association helps produce “America’s Day at the Races” for FOX Sports, and bettors can spend all afternoon on the weekends wagering on races – this weekend, for instance, FS1 will be televising action from 1:30-7 p.m. ET on Saturday, while FS1 and FS2 will combine to provide coverage in the same time slot on Sunday. NBC Sports, meanwhile, will televise races beginning at 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Casual bettors have been signing up for NYRA’s program as well as FanDuel racing. The NYRA has registered seven times the amount of people in the past three weeks than it had the rest of the year combined, according to chief revenue officer Tony Allevato.
So where will this leave horse racing once everything (hopefully) goes back to normal, and it’s competing with the likes of the NBA, MLB, NHL and PGA Tour? This is mere speculation, but it’s hard to see how this is anything but a positive for future betting interest. Sure, new viewers are likely only tuning in because there is little else to bet on, and some will leave once other sports come back. But if horse raining can retain even a chunk of the new viewers, they could help buoy the industry well beyond the pandemic.
NYRA continues to broadcast races
Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens suspended operations in March when a worker tested positive for COVID-19. But the NYRA continues to broadcast non-New York races – it’s always done so – and races now take place in spots like Tampa Bay Downs, Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park, Oklahoma’s Remington Park and Nebraska’s Fonner Park. Allevato says the NYRA, a nonprofit, continues to broadcast races to take care of its employees and the industry as a whole.
“We’re keeping them employed, and we’re keeping food on the table for these people,” he said. “We are in horse racing for the long haul, and our goal is to see New York horse racing thrive, and for horse racing to be successful in New York, it needs to be successful across the country.”