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The college football campaign was officially upended this week when the Big Ten and Pac-12 both postponed their fall sports seasons. Other conferences are still charting their course of action, leaving some bettors wondering what will happen to their wagers.
We caught up with Jay Rood, Bet.Works' chief risk officer and theScore Bet's head trader, to discuss how books are handling a fractured football season and what bettors should expect for their pending wagers.
College football futures came down at theScore Bet in early August when players began opting out of the 2020 season. But that didn't settle countless unresolved bets.
Sportsbooks flooded the market with football props in the spring to account for the lack of live sports. Those bets felt like the safest on the board at the time, but now bettors want their money back. However, it's not that simple.
"Our house rules dictate how we handle current wagers that are already made," Rood said. "Everything is still kind of action."
Sports betting is a heavily regulated industry, and books must follow their house rules whenever a ticket is in question - even amid a global pandemic. Based on theScore Bet's house rules, any futures bet is considered "action" regardless of schedule or location change, the cancellation of games or events, or the absence of any player or team for any reason.
Those reasons may include injury, illness, suspension, and more, but what about a pandemic?
"When I was writing house rules, I never thought we were going to be in a pandemic," Rood said. "Even if you brought that up, you'd think that's never going to happen."
Some bets are already voided: win totals - which depend on teams playing their original schedules - have been refunded, as have bets on games that are already canceled.
National and conference title bets, though, are a different story.
The house rules at theScore Bet dictate that futures bets "will be graded based on the applicable league's or the sport's governing body's determination of such result." In simpler terms: if the NCAA or a conference declares a winner, the sportsbook does, too - even if we don't yet know how those winners will be decided.
"It could be tricky," Rood said. "I don't know the right answer right now."
Let's imagine a situation in which some conferences - such as the Big Ten and Pac-12 - play in the spring while other schools compete in the fall, and the best teams from each season face off in a de facto title game at the end of the spring campaign.
It sounds a bit far-fetched, but if it happens, and the NCAA crowns the winner as the "national champion," sportsbooks like theScore Bet will be forced to honor it.
"We can propose a plan of what we think we ought to do in accordance to our house rules, but it's a crazy scenario," Rood said. "It's like trying to sell Popsicles on the sun right now."
What if only some teams play for the national title, even as other schools opt out? If the SEC and ACC compete for an NCAA-sanctioned title this fall, what happens to those who bet Ohio State or Oregon? If Notre Dame opts out but the rest of the college football world plays on, do those bettors get their money back?
Per the house rules, they're all out of luck. Rood acknowledges the value of goodwill in these situations, but even if sportsbooks want to refund bettors on a case-by-case basis, their hands are tied by their own house rules, which are regulated and enforced by the gaming commission.
If books were allowed to refund tickets on those teams, what about those for the remaining teams? Do bettors keep those at their original price, which would all but guarantee a major loss for the book?
"It's a no-win situation," Rood said. "You don't want to be a jerk, you want to be sensitive to everyone's misfortune. What we will do is we will follow the house rules."
"It's all up in the air," he added. "Nothing is off the table."
For now, sportsbooks are preparing for a potential hit this fall following a string of financial blows already dealt by the pandemic.
It began in March when the NCAA Tournament - and the millions of dollars it generates - vanished. And even with major sports returning during the past month, nearly two-thirds of the MLB season was scrapped, and many bettors are wary of placing futures bets that may never pay out.
"People are becoming way more familiar with house rules than ever before," Rood said. "And that's a good thing."
Rood estimates losses of up to 50% of revenue if the college football season is canceled altogether. Some of that may trickle into the NFL, which Rood thinks could generate more money than ever before - we've already seen that effect in the market, as niche sports experienced an explosion of interest this spring without any competition, and this year's MLB opener was one of the most widely bet baseball games ever.
Until we get more clarity on the football season, though, it's a waiting game - and a guessing one, too - for sportsbooks and bettors.
"It's almost like you're white-water rafting down a river, trying to navigate things as they appear in front of you," Rood said. "That's what we're trying to do."
C Jackson Cowart is a betting writer for theScore. He's an award-winning journalist with stops at The Charlotte Observer, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Times Herald-Record, and BetChicago. He's also a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and his love of sweet tea is rivaled only by that of a juicy prop bet. Find him on Twitter @CJacksonCowart.