Jackson Wieger is betting on table tennis matches. Yes, pingpong.
It's happening halfway around the world in Russia. It's possibly fixed. Wieger can't watch the matches he bets on unless he finds a heavily delayed stream on the internet. He doesn't know much about any of the participants, and when he started betting table tennis he didn't even fully understand how it was scored.
Doesn't betting on a sport that is played almost entirely out of the mainstream, without much information, feel a little strange?
"No. It kind of makes it exciting," said Wieger, who has covered table tennis for Denver Sports Betting. "There's a lot of volatility."
He's not alone. Far from it. In Colorado, $8.8 million was bet on table tennis in March, more than double what was bet on MMA. Back in January, the figure was $11.8 million, more than was bet on college football bowl games that month and more than was bet on the NHL. Colorado is home to the Avalanche, the current Stanley Cup favorite.
Long after sports returned from a COVID-19 hiatus, table tennis continued to be a weird phenomenon in Colorado. It was the fourth-most bet sport in the state in January, sixth in February and March, and back to fourth in April.
"I'm probably as shocked as the rest of the gambling community," said Jason Scott, vice president of trading at BetMGM. "Once sports came back, I thought it would disappear off the map. It's crazy."
It's clear that table tennis' popularity in the betting world isn't going away. How did this happen?
Table tennis betting got popular during COVID shutdown
The origin of the table tennis betting craze, of course, is that it was still playing when the sporting world shut down.
Legal sports betting in Colorado started on May 1, 2020. At that point, Major League Baseball, the NBA, NHL and just about every other major sporting league was on hiatus due to COVID-19.
"I was counting down the days to bet sports at home on an app," Wieger said. "Then that day came and the world had shut down.
"May 1 hits and it was like, 'I'm so excited, I have to bet on something.'"
There was table tennis. That first month in Colorado, $6.6 million was bet on table tennis. MMA was the second-most popular sport among bettors at $1.7 million.
It was a funny headline, another COVID-related oddity. Then mainstream sports started to come back. People kept betting pingpong.
The one thing table tennis had that was unique in sports was its pace. Matches start about every 15 minutes, and there are a ton of them every day. Lines change fast, so there are plenty of chances to bet on a big underdog. In-game betting lines move so fast it can be hard to get wagers in before the odds change again. Matches don't take long and if you want to speed it up, you can bet on sets. Because of the time difference to Russia, it was happening during the morning, and what else was going to fill the time during a pandemic?
The fact that nobody knew anything about table tennis actually became part of the draw. With the wild odds shifts and few really knowing what's going on, bettors found that table tennis underdogs were cashing more often than big underdogs do in other sports. Instead of studying lines and teams, you just bet.
"You play the slots, it's purely a game of chance," said Conor McCormick-Cavanagh, who writes for Denver Westword. "Sports betting can be a game of skill to a point. With table tennis, you can play it like you're rolling the dice or pulling a slot lever. You're betting on some random Russian dude."
And that's how table tennis became a big deal in Colorado, even though you wouldn't know it because hardly anyone talks about it.
Table tennis is popular, but not talked about often
For a sport that is beating some mainstream sports in betting handle and sometimes doing eight figures of bets in a month, wagering on table tennis is a bit like fight club. Nobody talks about it.
It's hard to find any chatter on social media about table tennis betting or bettors who proudly gamble on the sport regularly. Scott said at BetMGM, the table tennis action is mostly dominated by a small number of players who bet often. Due to some concerns about betting irregularities and the fact that a lot of money is coming in on a fast-paced sport that nobody seems to understand well — not even oddsmakers — the house was wary of it. But after a year, sportsbooks haven't lost money on table tennis.
"It's something I was nervous about, but that fear has dissipated," Scott said. "But we keep an eye on it."
Still, there are casual bettors playing it, even if they are mostly in the shadows. McCormick-Cavanagh said he had heard about a sharp bettor posting picks on the social messaging app Discord, and you had to know someone to get on the thread.
McCormick-Cavanagh, who has written about the table tennis betting phenomenon, said he's unsure what the betting base is for table tennis. Most people won't admit to it. McCormick-Cavanagh said he has a friend who said he's embarrassed to bet table tennis.
Clearly, some people are betting it. Most states haven't announced their table tennis betting numbers. New Jersey and Iowa don't publish specific numbers for table tennis. Illinois' monthly reports relegate it to "other sports." The Michigan Gaming Control Board doesn't authorize betting on table tennis.
But Colorado does track it and it's doing better than anyone could have ever predicted.
"It does surprise me," Colorado Division of Gaming director Dan Hartman said. "I've been surprised from the beginning."
Concerns about table tennis irregularities
Part of the table tennis story is that nobody is quite sure if everything in the sport is on the up and up. After all, it's half a world away.
Last July, New Jersey halted gambling on Ukrainian table tennis due to concerns that matches involving six players were being fixed. Before that, there were concerns about irregularities in betting. It's a sport that isn't exactly talked about on highlight shows, and maybe that is part of the appeal. We like our conspiracies, after all, and it's not like most bettors are seriously handicapping the sport anyway.
"Even if the fix is in, it's random chance," McCormick-Cavanagh said.
Colorado's Division of Gaming doesn't allow its licensed operators to offer any sport. Spring training baseball wasn't allowed. Betting on the draft for the NBA All-Star Game was nixed. Table tennis betting was allowed, but Hartman said it's something the state monitors.
"We do worry about it a lot," Hartman said. "We make sure there are leagues we can verify that there are integrity items in place.
"We're always watching for those things out of the ordinary, and so are the operators. It's their money if they lose. They want legitimate sports."
However it happened, table tennis has a legitimate hold on the betting community, especially in Colorado. The NBA and NHL are in their second postseasons since the shutdown. An entire NFL season was played. Major League Baseball is back to a 162-game schedule. And yet, table tennis persists. In April, $8.96 million was bet on table tennis in Colorado.
"You'd think table tennis would have been shoved to the side by now," Wieger said. "I think it's here to stay. Maybe it's just they have a loyal base of bettors that find it fun."
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