Ukraine invasion slams betting brakes on bustling Russian table tennis market
Betting's biggest sports: NBA, NFL, college basketball and … table tennis?
The slot machine of sports betting has its handle locked.
Several U.S. and European online companies stopped customers from betting on Moscow Liga Pro, a table tennis league that capitalized on bettors’ eagerness to make frequent, around-the-clock wagers.
As a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. sportsbooks, including FanDuel, DraftKings, Tipico, BetMGM and Caesars, halted betting on the league.
Tipico’s U.S. Sportsbook Manager Sunny Gupta said he expects the table tennis hiatus to last until “there’s a natural conclusion to that war effort."
"It’s so tough to guess how long that will play out," he said. "But we stand with Ukraine, obviously.”
The action pauses a remarkable bonanza of unexpected returns from an Olympic sport often relegated to American garage games, often with beer cups atop the table.
What matters most to many consumers of table tennis — regardless of where in the world it is played — is its status as a sport that can be bet upon legally and offer rapid wins and losses.
"It's fast and furious and that's part of the equation," said Las Vegas SuperBook Director Jay Kornegay, whose shop opted not to offer wagers on table tennis. "There's action all the time and a lot more games to bet than in all the other sports."
Table-tennis wagering surged during the COVID-19 pandemic when major sports were darkened by the effects of the deadly virus.
The Colorado Department of Revenue reported in May 2020 betting on table tennis constituted a staggering 25.7% of all online sports betting in the state.
It didn’t seem to matter that bettors lacked information on the players’ financial and competitive incentives to win or had difficulties finding data on past player results.
The bettors were simply happy for constant action.
“Especially with the way we offered it: Who will win the next point? The next game? The next match?” Gupta said. “Everything happens so fast. It’s been that instant gratification — that immediate result you don’t get in the other sports that we feel played a big reason in why people gravitated to table tennis.”
Even after U.S. leagues returned to action during the pandemic, betting on the sport increased and reached a September peak handle of roughly $11 million in Colorado alone, according to state reports.
Tipico and FanDuel, which offered live streaming of the table tennis matches, described robust business in Colorado. Gupta explained betting on those obscure Russian matches was more fervent than professional tennis, boxing and UFC fights.
Table tennis actually tripled professional tennis betting and was twice as successful as soccer, the Colorado reports show. A lack of casinos in Colorado was a major contributing factor in the sports betting popularity, Gupta said.
"People were using live table tennis as a proxy, receiving that instant gratification," Gupta said. "Table tennis was becoming their version of the casino they lacked.”
A five-set table tennis match can be over in as little as 20 minutes. The point-by-point, set-by-set gambling feeds the appetite of those who clamor for the constant yanking on the slot machine arm or the repetitive screen-tapping done on video-betting machines.
Kornegay admits he was initially baffled to see the cash table tennis generated, speculating educated bettors discovered cracks in the odds to exploit.
But as he looked deeper and found Colorado books retained a startling 9.6% hold of the money bet that month, he couldn't believe it.
"There must be a lot of uneducated players," Kornegay surmised.
Russian table tennis is akin to that open-all-night-card-table dealer. There's no breathalyzer required. You make a deposit, you're in the game. Moscow Liga Pro staged matches at all hours to accommodate both European and American bettors.
Table tennis aficionados estimated a core group of around 80 Russian players regularly participate in the league, with around 150 summoned as needed.
Before Putin rolled tanks through Ukraine, Russia's free enterprise was booming. The betting ban also struck Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and any other sports betting originating there or in neighboring Belarus.
The Colorado Department of Revenue, the only state agency that produces a sport-by-sport breakdown of online sports betting figures, reported table tennis generated $110.4 million in bets last year.
In January 2021, Colorado’s four most popular sports were the NBA, NFL, college basketball and table tennis.
As of December 2021, Colorado represented 6.4% of the total U.S. betting market, according to figures published by the industry website Gaming Today. Assuming other states with legalized online sports betting attracted a similar handle, that would mean about $1.72 billion was bet in the U.S. last year on table tennis.
The abrupt halt leaves a void as bettors scour for alternatives.
“We’re seeing an increase in college basketball betting, more quarter and halftime bets, which is good timing as we get into March Madness,” Gupta said. “It’s not as fast as table tennis, but, for now, it’ll have to do.”
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