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Athletes, Fans Find Creative Ways To Get Their Sports Fix

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump talked with top sports officials in a teleconference yesterday about the prospect of reopening sporting events to the public. Even so, the NBA season is suspended, Major League Baseball still on hold, and the National Hockey League season is - forgive the pun - on ice. As Connecticut Public Radio's Frankie Graziano reports, the COVID-19 pandemic has athletes scrambling to find competition and those who bet on games looking for other options.

FRANKIE GRAZIANO, BYLINE: After the coronavirus hit, Michael McDowell had to trade in his Ford Mustang stock car for a racing simulator.

MICHAEL MCDOWELL: You're used to driving off the seat of your pants. You feel the car going through the bumps and moving around. And now you just have a screen. And you've got to tell your brain what to do based off of those visual cues.

GRAZIANO: NASCAR postponed 7 Cup Series races in response to the coronavirus, beginning with the March 15 Atlanta race. By the following weekend, McDowell was already back racing, iRacing from his home in North Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

GRAZIANO: It all came together so quickly so fast that McDowell had to borrow another driver's setup for the first online race. But for the next one, with COVID-19 forcing many retailers to scale back operations, his options were limited.

MCDOWELL: The guys at the shop on the 34 car welded me up a chassis. And we borrowed some parts and pieces. And we just made it work.

GRAZIANO: He finished 14th out of 35 drivers. 1.3 million people watched that iRacing event. ESPN recently televised two NBA ballers play Xbox. Former MVP Kevin Durant took on Miami Heat forward Derrick Jones Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN DURANT: Come on, man. This is fluke.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And stolen by Ilyasova.

GRAZIANO: Matt Holt is the NBA's senior vice president of global partnerships. He says the 16-player NBA 2K20 tournament is about bragging rights and raising money for coronavirus relief.

MATT HOLT: Sports fans and the NBA fans are hungry for sports and entertainment. And we hope this helps fill the void.

GRAZIANO: The loss of most sports also left a void for those that take bets on the games, the sportsbooks. Johnny Avello says the cancellations left DraftKings the task of replacing what he estimates was 80% to 90% of its traditional business. He's the company's director of race and sports operations.

JOHNNY AVELLO: No NCAA basketball tournament. NBA, NHL - all canceled. Baseball never got started. So we had a look for content. And we found it.

GRAZIANO: They did all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF TABLE TENNIS MATCH)

GRAZIANO: That's Czech table tennis. A DraftKings spokesman said more than half of the total dollars people are putting down on the sportsbook are on what most Americans call Ping-Pong. The pandemic has consumers looking in the unlikeliest of places for action. DraftKings is offering free pools where users can pick what they think will happen on the next episode of "Top Chef" or "Jeopardy." Whether it's Czech table tennis or baseball out of Taiwan, with traditional sports on the sidelines, bettors will take what they can get. For NPR News, I'm Frankie Graziano in Glastonbury, Conn.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "KOOL IN THE SUMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.