2020 Year In Review Of US Sports Betting – 5 Big Moments

Posted By Nicholaus Garcia on December 30, 2020

This year has been like a feverish dream nobody thought they would escape. One thing led to another, from the loss of professional sports to the entire shut down of cities. But despite all the chaos and world-altering moments, there have been slivers of joy.

The LA Dodgers finally won a World Series, the NHL bubble restart finished with zero athletes testing positive for COVID-19, and the Pheonix Suns were the only NBA team to finish 8-0 in the league’s restarted bubble season.

Now that this hellish year is coming to a close, it’s time to recap those moments but with a slight twist.

Additionally, for your entertainment, I’ve added a little nod to Spotify’s popular year-end Wrapped campaign. Here is a small Spotify playlist that pairs with the most significant sports betting moments of 2020.

#1 March Madness is canceled and the loss of professional sports

Well, since my baby left me — what a fitting opening line for a year that began with the cancellation of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

I remember getting ready to watch top seed Florida State take on Clemson in the ACC Tournament before the Ivy League announced it was suspending play for the remainder of the season. The tiny tracker at the bottom of ESPN kept flashing as the news started to pour in. Then, like dominos, the entire March Madness foundation began to crumble, game by game, conference by conference, until finally the NCAA said no tournament would be held this year.

What started with college basketball bled into the four pillars of sports (NHL, NBA, MLB, NFL), all deciding to halt play or postpone the start of its season.

It was unprecedented. The coronavirus pandemic brought everything, air travel, the hospitality industry, governments, and even professional sports, to a standstill. As fans, we were left feeling shocked, stunned, baffled, like watching our favorite team lose a game on the last play.

Everything went dark. But sports bettors would not go away quietly. Soon, the world began betting on some peculiar and interesting things.

#2 Complete chaos and betting on strange things

All around the world — is a great way to emphasize that the loss of professional sports didn’t just affect US sports betting.

One would think after football, baseball, basketball, hockey, NASCAR, tennis, and any other traditional sport is sidelined, there would be nothing left to bet on.

Ha! Enter Korean Baseball, Belarusian soccer, and table tennis, all stepping up and shouting to the masses “bet on us!”

And that’s exactly what the sports betting community did.

At one point in time, here were some of the (odd) things people placed wagers on and the operators that offered them:

  • Magnus Carlsen futures chess (William Hill)
  • 2020 ICC Cricket World Cup futures (DraftKings)
  • Call of Duty League (William Hill)
  • Czech Table Tennis Star Series (William Hill)
  • Belarusian Premier League (FanDuel, DraftKings)
  • South Korean baseball (William Hill)

But this wasn’t enough to save an industry that relied heavily on tourism and packing thousands of people into windowless buildings. At one point in time, every single casino in the US was shut down. Thousands of jobs lost, destination cities empty and unemployment numbers skyrocketing.

But eventually, the powers that be would find a way to bring back the sports that we cherished. They would help to reshape the hospitality industry with strict protocols.

However, the sports gods would require some sacrifices.

#3 The return of professional sports and fanless stadiums

Tonight, I’m gonna have myself a real good time — is precisely what sports fans and sports betters did when professional sports leagues announced their return.

But the global pandemic had already taken its toll on the world, and because of this, fans were left on the outside looking in.

The NHL jumped right into a 24-team tournament in Canada in late July, culminating with the Tampa Bay Lightning raising the Stanly Cup.

The NBA restarted its season with a bubble in Orlando, which saw the Las Angeles Lakers add their 17th championship.

Major League Baseball agreed on a 62 game season ending with the Las Angeles Dodgers being crowned World Series Champions.

The NFL simply did away with pre-season football, instituted a chaotic COVID-19 tracing system, and dove right into the regular season.

And lastly, NCAA football did away with non-conference games. Unfortunately, not all collegiate conferences and leagues made the cut in 2020. Some events were canceled, like the aforementioned March Madness and the College World Series. And some conferences like the Ivy League suspended all fall and winter sports, as did a handful of others.

While college stadiums allowed a fraction of people to watch the games live, professional stadiums were left empty for the 2020 season.

Regardless, the return of professional and collegiate sports was a welcomed sight. It was especially welcomed in one particular market.

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#4 New Jersey’s accolades and the launch of new markets

Come gather ’round people wherever you roam — and let me tell you a story about how New Jersey sports betting has steadily become the top market in the US.

We all know how the story began, in 2018 the US Supreme Court struck down the federal ban that limited sports betting to Nevada.

Since that historic day, several states have embraced sports betting for a number of reasons.

New Jersey and renowned Atlantic City, was the first state to launch betting outside Nevada and the first state to truly show the impact mobile wagering can have. About 80% of all handle in the Garden State comes by way of sportsbook apps and websites.

Here is a small comparison of just the last three months (September – November) between Nevada and New Jersey:

New Jersey sports betting handle

  • $748 million
  • $803 million
  • $931 million

Nevada sports betting handle

  • $575 million
  • $659 million
  • $609 million

Now there are a number of factors to account for when looking at these figures. Las Vegas is, and will always be a tourist destination. Then again, I don’t know many people cutting the line to move to Atlantic City. Still, the numbers show a shift in the hierarchy of things. Even if you go back to January 2020, and take a look at the LSR Revenue Report, New Jersey reeled in more betting handle month after month than Nevada. That’s saying something.

On top of this, other states like Illinois, Tennessee, and Colorado have recently joined the ranks. Tennessee is unique in that it is the first mobile-only sports betting state.

Pound for pound, Colorado has shown its gaming market will continue to grow.

And Illinois — wow. In such a short time, it has already become the No. 4 sports betting state in the US. With its abundance of gambling, basically any and everything, some experts believe it could become the next gambling mecca. Many more states will launch actual betting or begin real betting legislation in their states in 2021.

There once was a time when all sports betting activity took place in Nevada. But now, kids will only grow up knowing New Jersey has always been king.

Perhaps a ceremonial torch needs to be created. Maybe Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak can meet former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a poolside bar somewhere in the heart of Atlantic City and formally congratulate him.

#5 This is where I leave you and a glimpse of 2021


Nobody pray for me it’s been that day for me — we’ve all had that day, or in the case of 2020, that year. But Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Kendrick Lamar’s song Humble is about just that — remaining humble.

Despite what 2020 has brought, the good, the bad, the ugly, we must remain modest.

The new year will bring many more exciting things when it comes to sports betting. A state like Virginia, which was anti-gambling since forever, has now embraced sports wagering. The Commonwealth, much like Tennessee, will launch a mobile-only product before brick-and-mortar casinos are up and running.

Michigan online sports betting has been in the pipeline for a while. Now, by mid-January, residents of the Wolverine State will have the ability to place wagers from their smartphones and will be able to choose from a number of online casino games.

Places like Hawaii are discussing the possibility of casinos, gaming mogul Sheldon Adelson is deploying lobbyists in Texas, and states like Florida and California have seen a surge in sports betting talks.

On Wall Street, sports betting operators are now becoming publically traded companies. Betting operators are infiltrating television networks and striking deals with teams, and even universities. This ludicrous when you think about it!

But at the end of the day, sports betting outside of Nevada is only two years old. This is why, despite all the success, it must remain humble.

So, this is where I leave you. A year in which all casinos closed down, we bet on table tennis, and we witnessed a loss and return of professional sports like we’ve never seen before. Now that it’s behind us, let us look forward to a brighter 2021.

Best wishes and a happy new year from myself and the PlayUSA staff!

Photo by Brandon Dill / Associated Press
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Nicholaus Garcia

Nick has had stints in Chicago and Washington, D.C., writing about politics, financial markets, and sports betting. He graduated from Texas Tech University and completed his master's degree in journalism at Columbia College Chicago.

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