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How Would Sportsbooks Handle NFL COVID Forfeits?

James Murphy
by in NFL on
  • Some NFL teams are dealing with COVID outbreaks among unvaccinated players.
  • The league office has indicated they’re taking a hard line against teams that are forced to postpone games due to unvaccinated players testing positive for COVID-19.
  • Forfeited NFL games would potentially have betting implications, particularly involving season long bets such as win totals.

By this point, everyone had hoped that we’d be done with the COVID-19 pandemic. Things are better now to be sure but unfortunately a disturbing number of anti-vaccination lunatics driven by social media posts, political agendas or general stupidity have done their part to prolong the mess. This is particularly true in the United States though most countries in the world have these bottom feeders to some extent.

It’s also an issue in sports and especially in the US pro leagues where owners, GMs and coaches are afraid to take a hard line on vaccinations. For the most part, the National Football League has done well at getting teams’ staff, coaches and players vaccinated. As of last week, more than 80% of team rosters had been vaccinated with some teams well over 90%. Unfortunately, there are still pockets of ignorance with several teams lagging far off the pace. The Washington Football Team is one of them and you can see head coach Ron Rivera getting more and more steamed about it with each passing day. On Saturday, two more WFT players were added to the COVID list bringing their total to six.

Rivera has every reason to be steamed–and concerned. The NFL has made clear that they’re done playing games with non-vaccinated players. In a memo sent last week, the Commissioner’s Office made clear that no accommodations would be made for teams that suffer COVID outbreaks due to unvaccinated players. More significantly, if rescheduling a postponed game is problematic the team with the outbreak could end up forfeiting games. Should this happen, the teams would be responsible for financial losses and subject to discipline from the league office. Here’s the money shot from the memo:

“We do not anticipate adding a ’19th week’ to accommodate games that cannot be rescheduled within the current 18 weeks of the regular season.”

“If a game is cancelled/postponed because a club cannot play due to a Covid spike among or resulting from its non-vaccinated players/staff, then the burden of the cancellation or delay will fall on the club experiencing the Covid infection,. We will seek to minimize the burden on the opposing club or clubs. If a club cannot play due to a Covid spike in vaccinated individuals, we will attempt to minimize the competitive and economic burden on both participating teams.”

Most observers–myself included–think that teams simply won’t let this happen. It’s still early in training camps but if unvaccinated players continue to be an issue you’ll see owners and GMs start to take a much harder stance.


In light of the league’s hard line against unvaccinated players forcing postponement it’s unlikely that there will be any forfeited games in the upcoming 2021 NFL season. Westgate sportsbook director John Murray said as much to the Las Vegas Review-Journal via text message earlier this week:

“No way NFL teams forfeit games. College … maybe.”

Should a forfeited game occur in the NFL (or any other sport) it would have some implications for sports betting. We got a preview of this last May with the National Hockey League. When the NHL announced the ‘bubble’ format and the plan for conducting the Stanley Cup Playoffs they formally ended the 2019-2020 regular season. This allowed sportsbooks to grade season long bets such as futures bets and win totals. While some sportsbooks paid winners for publicity reasons most wagers were graded in accordance with the house rules of each property. This meant that for the most part, win totals and other season long prop bets were graded ‘no action’. The house rules exist precisely for circumstances out of the ordinary such as the COVID-19 pandemic–most sportsbooks rely on them when it happens and in some jurisdictions they’re legally required to do so.

One major difference between the NHL’s situation last May and a potential situation caused by NFL forfeits is obvious–in the case of the NFL there would be a clear winner and loser in these games. While this would impact league related functions such as the standings, playoff seeding, etc. it would have minimal impact for sports betting. Sportsbooks would almost universally grade a forfeit that occurs under the NFL’s ‘non-vaccinated COVID outbreak’ scenario as ‘no action’. In this case, these games would fall under the long standing rule that ‘All NFL games must go 55 minutes for action.’ Every sport has a similar dictum that essentially means that any event that isn’t played with a winner and loser designated is ‘no action’. For example, here’s the relevant excerpt from the MGM Resorts race and sportsbook house rules at The Mirage Las Vegas:

Season long prop bets such as win totals would become ‘no action’ at most sportsbooks with any forfeited game. The most frequent rule is that teams must play their full schedule or season long bets are ‘no action’. Most sportsbooks go so far as to specify the number of games. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the Betfred Sports Colorado house rules:

There is an interesting circumstance that could arise this year–the NFL is increasing the number of regular season games from 16 to 17. So what if a sportsbook forget to change this in their house rules? In most cases, it wouldn’t matter. The sportsbook has a wide latitude to interpret their rules and in the case of an obvious error like this the ‘intent’ is clearly that teams must play a full schedule of games. Most jurisdictions give the book power to amend the house rules, even after the fact. Once again, this is from the Betfred Sports Colorado house rules:

In this type of situation, a sportsbook would easily get the approval from the Colorado Division of Gaming to revise the rules ex post facto.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal asked this question of local sportsbooks and they all said essentially the same thing. A couple of books indicated that they were in the process of working out how they’d handle a forfeit situation though it’s unclear if they’d do anything that would contravene the house rules. Circa Sportsbook (Nevada and Colorado) is one exception–they’re going to count any forfeited games for season long win totals. You could see other sportsbooks follow suit simply for competitive reasons.

Here’s something I’ve always done that you might want to consider. I keep a copy of the house rules for every sportsbook I play at on my computer. Most books have theirs available online but I like to have my own copy. You don’t need to memorize them passage and verse but you should at least know if there are any rules that differ from ‘standard operating procedure’ throughout the industry.

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