By Tim Poole
The English Premier League has tentatively proposed 8 June as the earliest potential return date for top-flight football in the UK.
The plan would depend on Government advice, with games to be played behind closed doors and all those involved tested for coronavirus – which would rely on testing equipment being much more readily available by June.
Players would need three weeks to regain match fitness and the aim would be a June restart, with the aim of completing 92 league matches in around five weeks.
Given the hectic schedule, this could equate to one game every three days and would surely require an increase in the number of players allowed in Premier League squads.
This schedule is further complicated by UEFA’s desire to complete its Champions League and Europa League competitions, as well as the Football Association’s desire to see out the FA Cup.
Despite the complications, however, should this ambitious scenario go ahead, sports betting companies would receive a long-awaited boost to their operations and revenue streams. So what do the plans mean for sportsbooks?
A return to action
While five weeks’ worth of one football division doesn’t sound too promising on the face of it, and will unlikely be anywhere near enough to recoup the overall loss of major sport this summer, Premier League football is often the bedrock of sports betting activity.
If full rounds of fixtures take place every three days (or thereabouts), sportsbooks could be looking at doubling the revenue of their normal pre-coronavirus week (where weekends have the majority of matches with less games scattered across the week). This is not to mention the fact other leagues could then also follow suit.
Instead of relying on minor sports like table tennis for revenue, as many are currently doing, sports betting companies would be seeing the conclusion of one of the most revenue-generating leagues in global sport. Naturally, though, this revenue would likely be limited to online sportsbooks and not yet retail locations, depending on the state of the UK's lockdown.
The absence of sports betting has left gamblers missing the ability to place a wager on the teams and leagues they follow, so sportsbook activity could show unprecedented levels during this five-week period as players celebrate the return of a cherished pastime.
Of course, many sportsbooks have turned to esports and virtual sports to fill the void left by sports betting. Those with online casino and poker arms have also been able to fill the void to some degree.
But for sports betting companies whose lion’s share of revenue comes from traditional sports, a return to action will be vital. Bookmakers will also still be able to offer outright markets as an added bonus, if Champions League, Europa League and FA Cup football continues.
Problem gambling and reduced disposable income
This, however, is an area that could pose sports betting operators some dilemmas. With responsible gambling measures and compliance rightly becoming an ever-increasing consideration, a greater spotlight is falling on gaming companies as more people become homebound due to isolation and social distancing.
While Premier League betting will be a casual experience for a majority of players who have simply missed backing their team or predicting the outcome of weekly matches, the risk of problem gambling will increase significantly if there is a major game right around the corner for five weeks straight.
VIP managers will also be under considerable scrutiny and will have to reduce the temptation to treat high-income players as cash cows in a bid to reduce the overall impact of COVID-19 on a sportsbook’s balance sheet.
The truth, especially by June, is many gamblers will possess a reduced disposable income due to the global situation. Sports betting operators will have to balance the potential for record revenue within a short space of time and the reality that, in some cases, they may be generating revenue from people who can ill afford to gamble in the current climate.
Will the Premier League conclusion become a reality?
Of course, the biggest immediate consideration is whether the Premier League’s plans are actually too ambitious at this stage.
Being at the mercy of a deadly virus causes great uncertainty for all involved and, should another major wave of new cases surface in the UK before June, the Premier League season could be in jeopardy of not finishing at all – a possibility all stakeholders have been aware of to date but one they have been hopeful does not come to pass.
All sports betting companies can do for now is put plans in place for staffing, technology and marketing in advance of a June resumption, while acknowledging the possibility it may not actually take place.
If it does go ahead, with greater regulatory and media scrutiny likely to fall upon operators, they would be well-placed to introduce greater responsible gambling policies specifically for this exceptional, unprecedented period.
Meanwhile, any companies simply waiting for sports to return are best-advised to seek out alternative revenue streams, like the aforementioned esports, virtual sports, online casino and poker, if they haven’t done so already.
But while the Premier League’s plans do not yet offer any concrete certainty, they offer the hope sports betting organisations needs right now.