In sports, and in gambling, timing is everything. For the gaming industry, the timing of the shutdown of sports across America could have been slightly worse…then again, the worst may be yet to come.
“It could have been worse if it was the beginning of football season and we were going to lose all these football weeks,” says Jay Kornegay, the man in charge of one of the biggest sports-gaming locations in Las Vegas, who watched the plug get pulled on the NCAA Basketball tournament known as March Madness.
But now, almost a month into the shutdown, football season is in jeopardy, too. All of Vegas is nervous about that.
“Football, if you put college and pro together, represents about 40 percent of our business,” Kornegay explains. “I don’t care who you are — if you lose 40 percent of your business, you’re taking a huge hit.”
Kornegay grew up in Denver and is a 1987 graduate of Colorado State University. He’s still a fan of his Rams, along with the Denver Broncos, Colorado Rockies and other local teams. For more than half of his 31 years in the business, he's overseen the famed Westgate SuperBook sports-betting operation at the Las Vegas Resort and Casino. During that time, he’s seen just about everything…from the days when Vegas was heavily influenced by what was labeled “organized crime,” to the “corporatization” of the city and the casino industry in general, to “family friendly” Las Vegas.
But he’s never seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic. No one has.
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In March 2019, Nevada hit a monthly record of over $600 million in wagers. In March 2020, there was a period of six days between the cancellation of March Madness and the suspensions of the pro leagues, and the total shutdown of all the casinos ordered by the governor; in between, sports books tried to give their customers anything they could to watch and wager on.
“We shut down, but a couple of the other places stayed open a little while to fight the fight,” Kornegay recalls. “We did that for a while, but it didn’t make sense after about a week. We were offering other small events from around the world [to wager online], but there just wasn’t a lot of interest.”
Vegas and the gaming industry as a whole are hurting badly right now, with people stuck in their homes and the sports world at a standstill. The coronavirus pandemic has cost America — and the gambling industry — the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, Wimbledon, the British Open golf tournament and perhaps the NBA and NHL playoffs, as well as the postponement of the Kentucky Derby, the Masters, NASCAR and more. That’s a lot of lost action.
This is the first time that casinos have closed since John F. Kennedy was assassinated…and that closure lasted one day. ”We’ve never closed a casino before,” Kornegay notes. “There really wasn’t a playbook for that…and likewise for a reopening process. So we’re working on that, and kind of fine-tuning as we wait to see exactly what we will be looking at.”
Kornegay can draw only one parallel or sorts: The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. "That stopped the sports world for ten days, two weeks, depending on the sport," he says. "But it had a rippling effect throughout the city. It took us months…maybe even over a year…to really bounce back.”
Unlike now, there were contests to wager on within two weeks of the attacks. But there were other challenges. “No one wanted to travel back then, remember?” Kornegay recalls. “So it was a little different…but it was soon followed by some of the best years we’ve ever had.”
This was the month that thousands of people were planning on traveling to Las Vegas to attend all the events associated with the NFL Draft, which was being hosted there for the first time. But during the shutdown, the draft can only take place remotely; there will be none of the typical spectacle when it's hosted from the commissioner's basement next week. The city was also slated to have its first NFL game in September; that's in doubt, too.
And now, with concerns that social-distancing guidelines will not allow thousands of fans to congregate in stadiums as early as this fall, the football season is in doubt, too, along with those crucial early betting weeks of the NFL schedule.
“I know there’s a lot of speculation out there, and everybody’s got their guesses about what’s going to happen,” Kornegay offers. "We’re moving forward now as if football is going to be there when we get to the fall. We’re certainly not holding our breath, but first things first, and that’s looking at things that might start up in mid- summer or late summer.”
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In the meantime, Colorado's sports-betting industry is slated to begin May 1, but there won't be much to bet on. And Kornegay's annual trip back to Denver to see friends and Rockies games at Coors Field is off for now. MLB may opt to play games at spring training sites in the greater Phoenix area, which would be fine for TV ratings, but tough on players and fans alike.
As for Vegas? All bets are off.
“I don’t think we’re going to hit a light switch and everything starts back up,” Kornegay says. “That’s not going to happen; you have to be realistic. ... I guess everybody just has to follow the guidelines so that we can get control of this thing sooner rather than later.
“Even when [sports] does come back, we know it’s not going to be business as usual."