Playing NCAA tournaments amid COVID-19 offers bettors chances to beat oddsmakers

March Madness played during the pandemic could provide sports bettors with an unique opportunity: beat the oddsmakers to COVID-19 information that could impact a game.

More specifically, inside information that a player in the men's or women's NCAA tournaments will miss a game after testing positive for COVID-19 or possibly being exposed to COVID-19, said Nick Bogdanovich, Director of Trading at William Hill, a leading sports betting company.

“It’s just a battle to get the news first,’’ Bogdanovich said. “It happens all the time, non-COVID stuff.

“I would say (top professional gamblers) definitely beat us to the punch more than we beat them. They beat the bushes pretty hard to get that information.’’

Max Bichsel, vice president at Gambling.com Group, said the hunt is on.

“There’s teams of guys that are just scouring Twitter, scouring social media, trying to understand what’s happening and the potential implications, especially for COVID,’’ Bichsel said. “It’s a lot easier than it was 20 year ago, when information was not transferred as quickly.

With the entire NCAA men's tournament being held in the Indianapolis area, information on COVID-19 issues will likely spread quickly. (Photo: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY Sports)

“You definitely can have a case of someone’s family member or friend or fellow student understand that somebody gets COVID before anybody else knows and they could potentially leverage that.’’

COVID-19 also could bust brackets and office pools when the men's tournament starts Thursday.

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A positive test forcing a team to forfeit would lead to its elimination and potentially a losing bracket. DraftKings will not offer refunds for brackets if teams must forfeit because of COVID-19, and don’t count on refunds from other operators. However, straight bets will be refunded if a game is canceled.

Another COVID-19 impact: Sports books in Las Vegas will be operating at 50 percent capacity, meaning there will be less-than-full scale madness inside casinos typically packed on the opening weekend of the tournament.

But the most alluring COVID-19 possibility is bettors obtaining information on coronavirus developments that could affect games. The payoff would take place if a bettor could place a wager before a sportsbook adjusted the spread because of the news of players being held out.

Jay Kornegay, Vice President of Race & Sports Operations at Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino, said he will have as many as seven employees monitoring Twitter to keep up with the “sharp’’ gamblers who are doing the same.

“Sometimes this information is discovered by the so-called sharp players before the books, and vice versa,’’ Kornegay said. “We are always monitoring Twitter and following the people that usually share that information.’’

Kornegay and other betting experts noted that the vast majority of teams who had players test positive for COVID-19 during the season forfeited their next game. But acknowledging the exceptions, Kornegay said, “When people are missing more games, is there always a chance to have that information before others? Absolutely.

“Whenever you have a chance of people or players missing games, you always increase that inside information.’’

In November, Gonzaga played Auburn despite holding out two reserve players for COVID-19 issues, and last week Wichita State played two games in the American Athletic Conference tournament despite holding out two reserve players for COVID-19 issues.

It's unclear how many other games were played when team held out players as a result of COVID-19 issues because the NCAA is not keeping those records, said Christopher Radford, Associate Director of Communications for the NCAA.

“All I can say is we haven’t seen rampant action on these games (involving players out for COVID reasons),’’ Kornegay said.

Sascha Paruk, an oddsmaker and editor at sportsbettingdime.com, noted the spread in the Nov. 27 Gonzaga-Auburn game opened with Gonzaga favored to win by 12.5 points. By tip-off, the spread had jumped to 18 points, indicating more money was wagered on Gonzaga despite two of its players being held out.

Gonzaga won by 13 points, 90-67.

Before Wichita State disclosed it would be holding out two then-unidentified players, Paruk pointed out, the highly regarded KenPom ratings projected the game with Cincinnati as a four-point victory for the Shockers. The spread closed at four at most sportsbooks, according to Paruk, and Wichita State lost by one point.

But Bogdanovich said he does not rule out seasoned professional gamblers from exploiting information on COVID-19 during the tournament.

“That’s a cat-and-mouse game that the bookmaker and the bettor have always played, trying to get the information first,’’ Bogdanovich said. “And the people on that side of the counter are very, very good at that.

“What they got to hope is they get the information first and it only involves one or two (players) and the game’s not canceled."

Johnny Avello, a veteran bookmaker at DraftKings, said he thinks the NCAA holding all of the tournament games in Indiana may limit the chances for people to get an inside edge on COVID issues.

But on Monday, the NCAA announced that six officials for the men’s tournament been sent home by the NCAA after one of them tested positive for COVID-19 and five others needed to be sent home because of contact tracing. It raised the specter of players testing positive too.

“You know,’’ Avello said, “that does kind of throw a wrench into it."

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