One of the largest offshore sportsbooks, Sportsbook.ag, was down for more than two days last month.
For the duration of the outage, the site’s homepage said it was down for planned maintenance. But most of the time, there is an advanced warning for outages with scheduled updates. This time, there was none.
None of this seemed like it was planned maintenance. Instead, it appeared that the owners of the site closed the shop and were running off with the money. Or maybe the more optimistic scenario where the site was hacked, and the hackers were the ones leaving with the cash reserves.
At least that’s what several Reddit commenters were theorizing in the forum. Either way, it appeared something was wrong, and the customers were going to be left holding the proverbial bag.
Those Redditors wrote about the five-figure sums they had on the site. They were publicly coming to grips with the idea it was gone.
Ultimately, the site was restored, and users regained access to their funds. It was just planned maintenance to the site after all.
Offshore sportsbooks are the only option for Florida bettors
However, if Floridians want to bet on sports from the Sunshine State, this is the market they are subject to.
According to one Florida sports bettor, there isn’t even any real method of communication between offshore operators and customers.
“Yeah, there is no customer service,” said a Florida bettor named Wally who placed bets on Sportsbook.ag in the past. “Well, I mean, there is. It’s an email and that’s it. I remember the one time I needed them; it was the first time they switched to Bitcoin withdrawals. I was like, ‘where’s my money? It’s been six days.’ They gave me a cookie-cutter response telling you that your money isn’t gone and they haven’t rugged you.”
Florida sports betting was legal for about a month late last year. Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe agreed to terms on a new, 30-year gaming compact that would expand gaming options in the state and legalize sports betting.
The deal would essentially give the tribe a monopoly on the new industry. The Seminoles would be the only entity permitted to operate an online sportsbook. And any non-Seminole brick-and-mortar locations would operate as a contracted vendor of the tribe.
This led to a slew of lawsuits from a pair of Florida pari-mutuel facilities. In the meantime, the tribe launched the Hard Rock Sportsbook at the start of November. It was the first online sportsbook in state history.
A few weeks later, a federal judge agreed with the pari-mutuels. Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled that the ‘hub-and-spoke’ model violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Hard Rock Sportsbook closed shop shortly after the ruling came down.
The appeals process is underway, but the decision forced Florida bettors away from a regulated market and back to the grey one.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of options for offshore sportsbooks
Anyone that’s been in the gambling industry for more than the last few years will know that offshore sportsbooks were the norm for most of sports betting’s history.
Before 2018, the only place you could legally bet on a sporting event was a Nevada casino. That changed when the Supreme Court overturned PASPA, which allowed sports betting to be decided at the state level.
But many bettors were doing business with offshore sites well before the landmark ruling. And since the Hard Rock Sportsbook is no longer an option, Florida bettors went back to what they knew.
In fact, offshore sportsbooks are so common, that there are plenty of options to choose from. It sounds like I’m making an endorsement for offshore books, but I’m not. It speaks to how widespread the industry is and highlights the demand for a regulated one.
Someone even created a website to compare operations. It’s like the Yelp of offshore sportsbooks.
“There’s one website that I think almost every online sports bettor uses,” said Wally. “It’s called SBR. The logo is a blue bull. If you go on there right now, you’ll be able to see a grade for every single sportsbook that exists online. I think they even have regulated stuff like Caesars. They’ll give each book a letter grade and tell you everything you need to know about it.”
The site would go beyond just reviews. It would track lines and odds and tell you which books were available to you.
“I remember I was betting some football game and the spread on Bovada was -7, but I could get it on Sportsbook.ag at -6,” said Wally. “So I was like, ‘oh, I’m going to create an account here.’ It was just to get a better line, essentially.”
These operators will let you bet on almost anything
In legal markets, regulators dictate the terms of what can be wagered on. For instance, in some states, bettors aren’t allowed to bet on in-state college athletics.
On offshore sites, anything goes. Sure, there’s a small element of fun to this, but regulated markets lead to some amount of consumer protection.
Most reasonable bettors won’t touch a Ukranian soccer match. They’d rather bet on something they know. On the other hand, those with a gambling problem would be more likely to wager on things they have little knowledge of.
“There was this one time on Sportsbook.ag back in the day, they had a line on what was going to be the best performing video game of the year,” said Wally. “I was a big video gamer and knew that Call of Duty was going to crush everybody. It was this new game that the whole world was hyped on. And there was a forum where bettors would go to share their bets. I shared it on a forum and told a guy, ‘dude, you’re getting like 4-to-1 on this bet and there’s very little chance it doesn’t win ‘Best Video Game of the Year.’ Some whale went and bet $30,000 on it. The minute he posted that he made the bet, the line disappeared from the book.”
The sites can sometimes have shady deposit and withdrawal methods
Nowadays, most offshore books require cryptocurrency, usually Bitcoin, to deposit and withdraw. The decentralized nature of the protocol allows offshore books to skirt any U.S. banking regulations. They can take deposits directly from the bettor without going through a third party.
Interacting directly with the sportsbook isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You do that when you place a bet in cash at a sportsbook, after all.
It just goes circles back to the lack of accountability these sites have. Before cryptocurrency went mainstream, getting money on and off these sites included some very sketchy methods.
“You’d have to make a credit card transaction and then call some dude who was clearly in Costa Rica or somewhere,” said Wally. “He would confirm your transaction over the phone and then they would release your money. It was weird. Once the government cracked down on banks getting involved in gambling transactions, it was all strictly done through Bitcoin deposits. They convert it to USD pretty much instantly.”
While the deposits were instant, the withdrawals weren’t.
“They get your money so quick, but take so long to pay it back,” said Wally. “[Offshore sportsbooks] take seven business days for a withdrawal. It’s horrible… And I think they do that on purpose because they know you’ve got quite a bit of gamble in you if you’re on the site. If you’re wanting to bet it on something, you can just cancel the withdrawal. It’s back in your account instantly, and you can fire away.”
Florida needs an alternative
Wally never got scammed. He always got his money. But there was always a small voice in the back of his head that made him worry.
“I was always paid. But I definitely felt like I could be rugged at any time,” Wally said. “Like, what is .ag, you know? Is that Argentina? Antigua? I didn’t even know what that was.”
(Websites with .ag extensions, incidentally, represent ones based in Antigua and Barbuda.)
There is plenty of blame to be had for Florida’s current sports betting debacle. Pick anyone involved in the current gaming compact, and you could find a way to put blame on them.
With a thriving casino and pari-mutuel industry, Florida is one of the largest gambling markets in the country. Simply put, Florida sports bettors deserve a better system than this.