Gamblers bet on marbles and trotting as pandemic hits sport

Table tennis, marbles and the esoteric world of Swedish trotting are suddenly the focus of gamblers the world over now that football, horseracing and other top betting sports have disappeared because of coronavirus.

Trotting, where the jockey is pulled behind the horse in a small cart around obscure Swedish racetracks, normally attracts a distinctly niche following. But with Sweden resisting the strict lockdowns imposed in other countries, trotting races in the Scandinavian country have gone global with gamblers.

Swedish bookmaker ATG, which in normal business conditions bags average international weekly revenues of SKr48m ($4.8m), has reported a 465 per cent surge in international revenues for trotting since the pandemic erupted.

“We have had international partners before this, like the Nordic countries . . . but since all their sport is shut down, Swedish races is the major product they have to offer to their customers,” said Hans Lord Skarploth, chief executive of ATG.

According to Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, sports betting is a $65bn industry worldwide, with football, tennis and horseracing the most popular events to gamble on. Analysts at H2 Gambling Capital estimate that the coronavirus crisis will lead to an 11 per cent drop in overall global gambling revenue this year, from a forecast $473bn to $421bn.

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With major events such as the Premier League, this year’s Wimbledon tennis championship and the Tokyo Olympics all called off, bookies and gamblers have sought out sports that are still operating to have a flutter.

GVC, owner of the bookmaker Ladbrokes Coral, said that table tennis, which usually accounts for just 1 per cent of sports betting revenues, had become its fifth-biggest sport and a significant earner.

Marble racing, which involves videos of marbles being propelled around a speedway-style racetrack, has also become a surprise hit. Jelle’s Marble Runs, the founder of the “Marble League”, has seen subscribers to its YouTube channel jump by more than 100,000 in under a month.

This weekend Bet365, which earns the majority of its £2.9bn revenues from sports betting, offered odds on the Russian Ural League volleyball and horseracing in Florida, which is continuing behind closed doors.

William Woodhams, chief executive of betting company Fitzdares, said that Australian greyhounds had proved popular and that they had had a “huge bet” on Taiwanese basketball.

Football still accounts for a quarter of GVC’s sport turnover but now only for leagues in South American and African countries, and in Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has claimed that sport is “the best antivirus remedy”.

The country has not recognised coronavirus as a pandemic, and the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association said that betting figures across the sport had risen sharply, with the number of wagers and gamblers rising by 75 and 30 per cent, respectively.

“We are not going to substitute a championship programme with the Nigerian Cup,” said Kenny Alexander, GVC’s chief executive. The betting company usually makes 45 per cent of its revenue from sport.

But Simon French, a partner at the consultancy Bixteth Partners, said at least some minority sports offered better margins for gambling companies: “[There are] not as many firms offering odds on the events, so prices are more favourable to bookmakers.”

While some sports are glad of the extra publicity, it can also be problematic. One lower-league football match in Sweden had to be cancelled last week after hundreds of gamblers tried to call players and coaches to find out their tactics and starting line-up.

Minority sports are unlikely to remain popular once mainstream fixtures return.

“During the Winter Olympics, a hell of a lot of people tune in. For a couple of weeks, we get quite fascinated by sports we’ll never take part in . . . Afterwards, everybody is like, ‘whatever’,” said Tim Crow, an independent sports marketing consultant. “I doubt very much that anything niche that has hopped on to the radar will stick.”

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