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Don’t bet on it: As leagues look to resume play, oddsmakers contemplate infection rates at ballparks

UPDATED: Sat., April 18, 2020

As part of the national conversation has turned to professional sports getting back onto the field, the oddsmakers at one online gambling site have run the numbers. And if there is one thing that professional oddsmakers know how to do, it is run the numbers to mitigate loss.

While the idea of taking odds on professional sports fans contracting coronavirus might be disturbing, the results help amplify the continuing need for the stay-home orders many states – including Washington, Idaho and Oregon – have implemented with the hope of “flattening the curve” and slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Officials with Major League Baseball have held discussions about trying to restart the game. The most popular plan for now is sequestering all 30 teams in Arizona and playing games without fans at Phoenix’s Chase Field – a retractable dome which hosts the Arizona Diamondbacks – and minor league complexes in the region.

That plan, as with others suggested, is rife with obstacles. But the consistent with any variation is limiting exposure by eliminating fans from the equation.

With infection and death rates overseas flattening quicker than in the U.S., the Chinese Professional Baseball League regular season got underway on April 11 in Taiwan before empty stands, and the Korea Baseball Organization is poised to resume its exhibition season in South Korea on Tuesday, also without fans in attendance, with an eye toward beginning its regular season in early May.

The NBA and NHL are suspended indefinitely, with each passing day shortening the odds either league resumes its truncated season.

On Wednesday, the commissioners of the nation’s major college football conferences held a 30-minute conference call with Vice President Mike Pence and stressed that college sports cannot return from the coronavirus shutdown until campuses have reopened.

Regardless, the oddsmakers at ran models of three possible starting dates for MLB, NBA and NHL – June 1, June 15 and July 1 – to try to project the number of fans that would be infected by COVID-19, taking into consideration the virus apex of the pandemic in certain professional sports markets.

The models the gaming site used are based upon the continuation of aggressive social distancing measures and current projections for the apex in each city.

The model also assumes games being played with pre-COVID-19 average attendance, the infection rate for the city on that date, human interactions at each facility and the estimated number of people an asymptomatic infected person would infect.

The morose results project the number of people contracting the virus at the game and the odds for a single fan to contact the virus by attending the game.

Infection rates dropped by an average of 50% at most games when opening day was delayed to June 15 from June 1 and then an average of 80% from June 15 to July 1.

For example, in Boston – which had been projected to reach its apex last Thursday – 193 fans would be projected to contract the virus at Fenway Park for opening day on June 1. That number would drop to 87 fans becoming infected if the season opened on June 15 and just 19 new cases for a July 1 opening day.

In contrast for a city such as Dallas, which is not expected to experience its apex until May 5, for a Mavericks or Stars game at American Airlines Center the model projects 2,633 fans being infected on June 1; 421 newly infected fans on June 15; and 105 new cases on July 1.

As a reminder, the infection rates calculated were for one game – the theoretical opening day. Obviously, if the leagues resume play it would be for more than one game, so those infection rates would be applied to each subsequent day, contributing to the predicted “second wave” by medical experts.

Two weeks ago, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee extended the state’s stay-home order until at least May 4. On Wednesday, Idaho Gov. Brad Little extended that state’s order until April 30.

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