- Joined ESPN in 2014
- Journalist covering gambling industry since 2008
An NFL regular season that went to the dogs — and the bookmakers — is over, mercifully for the betting public.
NFL underdogs covered the spread in 55.7% of games this season. That’s the second-best mark for underdogs in the past 20 years, behind only 2006 (56.9%). The barking underdogs produced the most lucrative month ever for Nevada sportsbooks, which won a record $61.8 million in November.
But there is hope heading into the playoffs.
“This was our worst Sunday of the season,” John Murray, executive director of the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, said after the favorites went 14-2 straight-up in Week 17.
Indeed, after an expensive regular season full of struggles, the betting public is off to a hot start in 2021. They were due.
Here are the notable bets from Week 17.
• Wild-card round opening lines via Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill:
Colts at Bills (-6.5, 51.5)
Rams at Seahawks (-5, 42.5)
Buccaneers (-7, 46.5) at Washington
Ravens (-4.5, 54.5) at Titans
Bears at Saints (-8.5, 48)
Browns at Steelers (-3.5, 47)
• Sportsbook PointsBet described Sunday as “very average,” with handle down 20% from last week and almost 30% compared to the season average. “Bettors seemed to shy away altogether or play a bit more conservatively given the sheer uncertainty surrounding multiple Week 17 matchups,” Patrick Eichner, communications director for PointsBet, said.
• Sportsbooks did well with the Texans covering the spread in a 41-38 loss to the Titans and the Giants upsetting the favored Cowboys 23-19. Bettors did well on the Packers’ blowout win over the Bears, the Buccaneers’ win over the Falcons and the Ravens’ rout of the Bengals.
• In November, a bettor at the sportsbook at The Borgata in Atlantic City placed a $100,000 bet on the Colts to win the AFC South. The bet went south when Titans rookie kicker Sam Sloman made a game-winning 37-yard field goal that bounced off an upright to give Tennessee a 41-38 win over Houston. With that victory, the Titans clinched the AFC South.
• The Buccaneers winning the Super Bowl is the worst-case scenario for multiple sportsbooks. Tampa Bay attracted the most bets and most money to win the Super Bowl during an offseason that saw the Buccaneers acquire Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
“I’m happy with where we are sitting in the Super Bowl and conference futures pools,” Murray said. “The Bucs are a big loser but I don’t have a problem losing to a team that was that public and that trendy going into the regular season, especially one that will have to win three road games just to get to … Tampa.”
The Buccaneers also are a liability for BetMGM sportsbooks.
• The Chiefs, the favorites to win the Super Bowl, are 1-7 against the spread in their past eight games and 7-9 ATS overall. The 2013 Ravens, at 6-9-1 ATS, are the most recent team to enter the playoffs with a losing record against the spread and go on to win the Super Bowl.
Booking the bowls
Bookmakers and bettors tried to keep up with all the players opting out for NFL or COVID-19 reasons during bowl season. Point spreads moved frequently and dramatically, sometimes based on nothing more than a rumor.
The lines on six bowls moved more than three points off the opening numbers at Circa Sports. The biggest move was on the Cotton Bowl.
Oklahoma opened as a 3-point underdog, but the Sooners were favored by as many as 8.5 points by kickoff. Florida lost impact players seemingly every day early in the week, and a rumor circulated that Gators quarterback Kyle Trask would play limited minutes, if at all.
“When the groups started laying Oklahoma -3 the night before the game, that was just them going, ‘There’s a good chance [Trask] won’t play,” Matt Metcalf, sportsbook director for Circa, said. “If he does play, we’ll buy back when the number’s +7.”
Rumors are nothing new in the sports betting market. It happens regularly in the NBA, especially if there’s any chance a star like LeBron James might sit out a game.
“If they think there’s a chance the guy won’t play, they’ll just bet it,” Metcalf said. “And then they can always get rid of it later, because they know that they’re quicker than market. I think they’ve always done that, but the new thing is that it’s becoming such a big part of college football.”
The numerous opt-outs and quarantines resulted in the bulk of the money bet on bowl games coming in late at Circa. Metcalf estimated that upwards of 80% of the money bet on some bowls came in within an hour of kickoff.
“If I read information, I’m not going to sit there and wait for the market to tell me what it’s worth,” Metcalf said. “I’m going to form an opinion and say ‘if this guy’s out, I think that’s worth four points. I think there’s a 50% chance he’s out, so make a two-point move.’ We try to price that in, the same way [bettors] are doing. But they’re usually in a superior place of information, where they can usually scoop us.”
While Metcalf was happy with how Circa stayed on top of most of the information during bowl season, he said college basketball has been a different story.
“I don’t think I’ve beaten the bettors to one piece of information in college basketball,” he said with a laugh.
• Late Friday night, Alabama opened as a consensus 7-point favorite over Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. The line ticked up to Crimson Tide -8 on Saturday afternoon and has remained there.
The line move, multiple bookmakers said, was based mostly on Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. Fields took a hard hit to his lower back and ribs in the Buckeyes’ win over Clemson. Fields left the game briefly but returned and played well, despite showing signs of discomfort.
“If it comes out that he’s healthy or better than 80% … to me, right now, I’m expecting for him to be at like 65% … I think [the line] would drift down,” Metcalf said. “I think anything north of 7 will be high with a 100% Fields. But after watching that hit, I can’t see how he won’t be limited to some degree. I think he’ll play the whole game, but I think you’re going to get a lesser version of him.”
• As of Sunday afternoon, 62% of the bets and 77% of the money wagered on the national championship game was on Alabama at William Hill U.S.
• Some notable bets on the semifinal games:
–$1.3 million on Ohio State +7.5 against Clemson, at a FanDuel sportsbook in Indiana. Bettor won a net $1.13 million.
–$67,166.65 money-line bet on Alabama -1200 odds at the South Point in Las Vegas. Bettor won a net $5,166.65.
–$20,000 money-line bet on Clemson -300 placed with William Hill U.S. in Iowa. Bet would’ve won a net $6,666.65.
• Favorites are 14-11 against the spread in bowls so far, with 13 overs and 11 unders, and one push.
• The most-heavily bet college football game of 2020 at PointsBet was … a Wednesday night MAC clash between Ball State and Eastern Michigan on Nov. 11. That’s right, more money was bet on Ball State-Eastern Michigan than, for example, Notre Dame-Clemson.
Eichner said while some of the book’s biggest bettors played the game, there was also significant interest from public bettors. “People love the MAC all year, but especially in its first few weeks back. It was also the night before the Masters, betting was top of mind.”
Three questions with …
… Tina Hodges, president of Tennessee sportsbook Action247
Hodges is also the CEO of international lending service Advance Financial, which operates in 14 states in the U.S. and in India. She launched Action247 in 2020, despite not having any bookmaking experience, and is now competing against sportsbook giants like DraftKings, FanDuel and MGM.
Q: Why’d you decide to get into the bookmaking business?
A: Loaning money to high-risk consumers is a risk business, so I’m very comfortable with risk. It doesn’t bother me to be in a business that is perceived to be high-risk or unpredictable or one week you’ll win, one week you’ll lose. I’m really comfortable with that. As soon as we knew that [sports betting legislation] was going to pass, we incorporated the very next week. So we knew from the beginning that this is something that we wanted to do.
Q: What differentiates Action247 from your competitors?
A: One of the biggest things that our players have started to really love lately, especially in the last two or three weeks, is our cash deposits and cash withdrawals. We’re the only sportsbook in Tennessee that doesn’t require you to have a bank account. I didn’t realize how unique that was. It just seems a no-brainer that some people like to use their bank account for these sorts of things, some people don’t.
We have over 100 partner locations across Tennessee, where people can go load and unload their sports gambling account in cash.
Q: Was Action247 or you personally impacted by the Christmas Day bombing in Nashville?
A: Our office is probably five miles from downtown and our servers are 10-15 miles from downtown, so in that regard our call center was up and running and our system was up and running, but we did have a lot of players calling, saying their cellphone service was interrupted and they couldn’t place bets on the phone. When service was restored that Sunday evening, all of the bets started coming in.
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