Steve Kilgallon, writing for Stuff.co.nz, reports that Ukrainian table tennis has become the most popular choice for Kiwi punters starved of sport.
Georgiy Vahnin Vladimirovich, Valentin Polusmuak and Serhii Semenets aren’t just long names. In the world of sport right now, they are big ones too.
They are among the stars of Moscow’s Liga Pro and the Ukraine’s Setka Cup – two previously-unconsidered table tennis tournaments brought into the spotlight by the world’s gamblers.
With coronavirus shutting down every major sporting competition, there’s not much left for punters to bet on – meaning eastern European table tennis has become the world’s major sports betting market.
Table tennis is joined on a thin sporting menu by Indonesian volleyball, soccer from Russia, Nicaragua, Belarus and Chinese Taipei, some Australian and Hong Kong horse-racing and various virtual options – darts ‘legends’ playing at home, virtual car racing and e-sport.
While it would be difficult to argue that it represents elite sport – no Russian or Ukrainian players are ranked inside the world’s top 50 – table tennis is proving the most popular of them all right now, says TAB spokesman Mark Stafford.
“It will be interesting once rugby and cricket come back online, what will happen to table tennis betting,” says Stafford. “People are following it and quite enjoying it.”
Rugby caller Grant Nisbett is apparently a big fan and is writing the TAB’s form guides for the sport.
Worldwide, every major bookie is offering extensive markets on the two table-tennis competitions, with Aussie bookies SportsBet saying table-tennis has “enjoyed a massive uptake among punters”.
“It’s lean times, eh,” says one semi-professional Auckland punter.
He admits to “dabbling” in e-sport punting, putting a bit of money on Belarussian soccer and yes, a few dollars on Ukrainian table tennis.
“It is super-budget,” he says. “It looks like guys playing on lino in an indoor sports centre on one of those old tables from The Warehouse with some banners draped around the place. It looks quite funny.
“I think the type of people who would bet seriously on this are not those who would be interested in table tennis prior to this – which kinda tells you they might have a problem.”
The punter says serious gamblers would likely shun e-sports due to their lack of understanding of electronic gaming and the fear that matches could be easily fixed. Table-tennis appeals because it’s easily understood and form lines are easy to track.
The punter suggests that with TAB revenues well down, “it’s probably not a big statement to say this is by far their biggest”.
Stafford willl not give specific figures but admits volumes are way down
“You don’t have to be Einstein to work out we are taking a hit, like any business,” he says.
The lockdown also hits mainstream Kiwi sports, which each receive a small percentage of money wagered on them.
It’s not solely a New Zealand phenomenon: The Las Vegas Review-Journal assigned journalist Jim Barnes to spend an evening punting on the “rapid-fire world” of table-tennis. His conclusion was that table tennis “isn’t steak and lobster, but you can make a meal out of it”.
While the Auckland gambler wasn’t impressed by table tennis, he says it’s not the worst option around: British site Bet365 was screening live games and running markets on computer football simulator FIFA.
The Auckland gambler says betting on table-tennis is not the worst option around: he’s seen British site Bet365 screening and running markets on live games of computer football simulator game FIFA. “It’s just what it sounds like: you’re watching two guys play computer football.”
Problem Gambling Foundation marketing manager Andree Froude says some may be more likely to chase losses and place riskier bets on something as unfamiliar as Ukrainian table tennis. “If people are betting on sports they know nothing about, it may not be a problem for some people but for the vulnerable it can be risky because of that complete unfamiliarity.”
Some PGF clients have welcomed the closure of pubs and casinos because it has stopped them betting on pokies. But Froude says they have concerns about the online gambling world generally. It is difficult to get hard data on trends, but some countries have tightened their legislation around online gambling since the Covid-19 outbreak.