25 March, 2021

Team effort

Iqbal Johal provides an in-depth look at the new sports betting environment experienced during the 2020-21 season, and why the industry’s resilience provides hope for the future

While certainty has been restored to the sporting schedule, the 2020-21 season has been one like no other. Casting our minds back to a year ago when the chaos of the pandemic first ensured, few would have believed that more than 12 months later sporting events all over the globe would still be played in front of nobody, amid bio-secure bubbles for each team.

But that’s the stark reality. That the entire season will pretty much be carried out behind closed doors in Europe, save for several weeks and months last autumn when some matches were open to reduced capacity, but were completely prohibited from December.

But aside from a lack of spectators, having a near-normal schedule comes as a huge relief to operators, who had to endure between two or three months of alternative offerings during the big sporting shutdown last March. The suspension of all major live sport in mid-March lasted until May, with the German Bundesliga the first major league to return on 16 May, followed by the Premier League on 17 June. The UEFA European Championships and the Olympics were pushed back a year, meaning operators had to be versatile to avoid heavy losses. Losses were incurred, though. The impact on live sport led to figures in July from gambling data specialists H2 Gambling Capital forecasting betting sector gross gaming revenue (GGR), made up of horse and dog racing, sports betting among other verticals, to drop to $60bn for 2020, a 21% downgrade from the $75bn predicted at the start of the year.

However, an upturn of fortunes was seen during a gradual return at the start of last summer. Gambling Commission data covering the biggest online operators in the UK showed sports betting gross gambling yield (GGY) fell from £160.9m ($224.3m) in March 2020, down to £61.9m for April directly as a result of the shutdown. However, as major leagues returned by June, GGY sky rocketed to £217.5m, and £290m in October during a sporting bonanza in the US, with all its major leagues taking place in September, as well as a full football calendar in Europe.

Pent up demand was one factor attributed to the rise in GGY as punters were left without elite sport for months on end during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. A greater emphasis on online play helped boost figures, so too has been the packed and condensed European football schedule, which has seen the biggest clubs finding themselves playing every weekend and mid-week to catch up on lost time for starting the season in September.

As mentioned, sports betting operators and suppliers had to be diverse to stem the losses during the first wave of the virus, something echoed by EveryMatrix CEO Ebbe Groes. He told Gambling Insider that the supplier’s pivot towards esports helped mitigate against its loss of revenue experienced during the sporting shutdown, and how there’s been more uptake in its sportsbook products since the pandemic.

“It’s tough to see matches being played behind closed doors, that’s for sure,” Groes admitted.“I am a huge sports fan, and I definitely miss the thrills of being more present in the game.

“During the sports crisis last year, we did a massive switch to esports for our sportsbook and clients' success. One of the things we focused on with esports was getting live streams added as much as possible. Given this enormous boost, we came out of the sports lockdown even stronger than before.

“We’ve definitely seen more uptake for our sports betting products.We chose not to hibernate through a crisis, and acted fast and efficiently to mitigate the drop in revenue, which was something around 80% at the beginning of this crisis. Thankfully, once we started pushing more alternatives to live sports events, we saw the revenues coming back.

“Our Q4 2020 is well above Q4 2019, despite Covid-19 still having some negative effects to this day in terms of cancelled events. This is above expectations and makes us quite optimistic for 2021.”

Perhaps the biggest lesson to take from the pandemic has been the importance of an online offering, during the apparent digital transformation not only experienced by the gambling industry, but by most worldwide. Those who weren’t ready have suffered according to Groes, and “not only in the short-term from revenue loss but also in the long-term in driving players over to competitors with stronger online offerings.”

There have been some noticeable trends spotted during the new sporting environment, particularly with a lack of fans present at the majority of events worldwide. That is particularly true in the major European football leagues, with more away wins meaning lower odds and more customers betting on them to win. That point is backed up by statistics that show 39% of all wins in the Premier League for the 2020-21 season as of 1 March have come away from home, with 37% at home. It’s a trend Groes has also spotted.

“Statistically, it seems that away teams have a better chance of succeeding,” he says. “Odds for the away teams are dropping while the odds for home teams are rising. Also, something worth noting is that more points and goals have been scored with no fans in the stadium.”

The delayed Euros is a tournament in real danger of being played behind closed doors, and could need re-scheduling again considering it’s due to be played in 12 cities, which might not be possible due to current travel restrictions across Europe that are set to remain beyond June. Groes is still confident the Euros will take place and regardless of how it does, they will still be the biggest sporting event of the year. He was also quick to praise the industry for its resilience during the toughest of times.

“I’m confident that Euro 2020 will take place this year, even if it’s one year later than all of us imagined,” he says. “Bookmakers still have three months to prepare for what is believed to be the biggest betting event of the year in Europe. Even held behind closed doors, the Euros remain a much-expected event by football fans, and for sure, they’ll be watching it from a distance if it will not be able to attend in person.

“Sports betting is alive and kicking, despite 2020’s unfortunate turn of events. We went through some wild months last year, which we are all going to remember, that’s for sure. On a broader note, I am just really impressed with the resilience and ingenuity of the professional sports leagues in terms of managing to stage events under largely safe conditions for participants. Missing the fans in stadiums is unfortunate, but the show had to go on – and it did.”

Betsson sports product director Joakim Thor spoke of the challenges the new sporting environment and calendar presented to the operator, but also how the condensed schedule increased income.

The operator’s group revenue for 2020 increased by 24% year-on-year to SEK 6.39bn ($757.3m), aided by a 37% rise in Q4. In terms of its sportsbook, revenue rose 23% for 2020 compared to the year prior and 47% for Q4.

“The return of major events came with a condensed sporting schedule for a number of months,” Thor tells Gambling Insider. "Any operational challenges this presented were embraced and overcome and it was an exciting period for sportsbook. Live betting became a slightly higher proportion of our book’s turnover, particularly for football.

“The key driver for this was the revised schedules, which meant there were high- profile matches seven days a week and kick-off times were staggered even more so than usual, rather than having numerous concurrent games. This has continued for competitions such as the Premier League, where there are rarely more than two matches kicking off at once. Ensuring a highly competitive live offering is therefore even more important and we are always looking at new ways of enhancing the live betting experience.”

Thor was also optimistic of Euro 2020 taking place this summer as expected and doesn’t believe the lack of crowds will have an impact on the betting industry. He said: “Anything can happen in these uncertain times, but it would seem most likely that Euro 2020 will take place this summer, albeit with the format and some locations potentially changed.

“Fan attendance will, at best, be limited one would imagine, but this has become the norm of late and is not likely to have any significant impact. While any further cancellation of the tournament would be disappointing, we are entering a very exciting period at Betsson so we’ll be well prepared for any eventuality.”

After the lows of a year ago, the sports betting landscape looks a lot brighter. More matches and more certainty regarding a continuation of leagues and events regardless of another outbreak seem assured.

That also provides certainty to operators that they will have a product to offer. With restrictions also expected to ease this summer across Europe, there’s reason to be hopeful.