Bettors, sportsbooks turn to UFC, soccer

Jason Silva/USA TODAY Sports

Bettors in the U.S. were gravitating to UFC, international soccer and horse racing on the first weekend since most major sports leagues stopped play due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sportsbooks reported increased betting interest on Saturday's UFC Fight Night in Brasilia, Brazil. As of 5 p.m. ET at FanDuel Sportsbook, the betting handle on UFC Brasilia had exceeded the amount wagered on Fight Night 169 by 32%.

At Caesars Sportsbook, betting handle on the 12-fight card had climbed into the mid-five figures in the hours leading up to the main event and was up an estimated 50% compared to past UFC events with similar star power, senior oddsmaker Alan Berg told ESPN.

"It's not March Madness, but there's definitely interest [on UFC]," Berg said Saturday afternoon. "This type of an event would traditionally not get that much handle, but just the idea that it's the lone act in town, there's definitely extra interest."

In efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus, college basketball conference tournaments were stopped earlier in the week, and the NCAA on Thursday canceled the men's and women's national tournaments. The NBA, NHL and MLS suspended their seasons, Major League Baseball stopped spring training and the PGA Tour and NASCAR halted events. UFC Brasilia and Liga MX (Mexican Soccer League) were the only two live events Caesars was booking Saturday, which typically would have been packed with college basketball conference tournaments.

"The handle on Friday and Saturday [for conference tournaments] is just phenomenal, and now you go to nothing," Berg said. "It's a bit of a shock and shows the seriousness of what's happening in the country and around the world."

Berg said Caesars would begin looking to expand the betting menu next week, potentially offering more propositions on the upcoming NFL draft. Bookmaker William Hill U.S. said it was working with gaming authorities in each state it operated in to add more events to its betting menu, including Australian and Turkish basketball leagues.

The SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas on Saturday was offering bets on international soccer in Argentina, Australia, Hungary, Mexico, Russia, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine.

"Liga MX is one of our most popular leagues," Jeff Sherman, vice president of risk for the SuperBook, told ESPN in a text message. "Yesterday's soccer handle was concentrated on that."

UFC elected to go ahead with its event Saturday, although spectators were prohibited as a precaution. Kevin Lee was a -155 favorite over Charles Oliveira in the main event featuring a pair of lightweights. At Caesars Sportsbook, 62% of the bets and 52% of the money was backing Lee.

Late in the week, horse racing saw a bump in interest at multiple Las Vegas sportsbooks, although, across the nation Friday, betting handle at North American racetracks was down compared to the second Friday of March last year. Betting handle at all five thoroughbred tracks that ran Friday night, however, was up 35%.

Indiana joined a growing list of states closing casinos. Beginning Monday, Indiana casinos will be closed for at least two weeks. Indiana is one of 16 states that offers regulated sports betting and one of states with full-scale online betting.

Sportbook PointsBet, which operates in Indiana among other states, said the casino closures will not halt online betting.