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Inside NFL draft betting: Why bookmakers hate the props

Winning on this week’s NFL draft would be nice, bookmakers say, but it’s not expected. One Las Vegas sportsbook would be happy just to avoid what went down in 2018.

“I’ll be disappointed if we lose,” Ed Salmons, veteran oddsmaker with the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, said. “But we can’t lose what we did three years ago. That’s unacceptable.”

The NFL draft market is volatile and dominated by wise guys, who say there’s free money to be had — and the bookmakers know it. It’s one of the rare betting markets in which the house doesn’t always win and it’s not decided on the field, but essentially on Twitter, where the latest tweet from a plugged-in beat writer can move odds dramatically. Who sees the information first has the advantage, and it’s normally not the bookmakers.

It’s why bookmakers hate booking the draft. But they know there’s demand for it and feel obliged to offer dozens of different props.

Earlier this month, as oddsmakers at Las Vegas sportsbook Circa began setting over/unders on the draft position of 100 prospects, director Matt Metcalf let his team know that he was fine with losing on the draft, with a caveat.

“I won’t repeat the number, but I said, ‘You can lose this much, but try not to lose this much,'” Metcalf said.

The 2018 NFL draft: An expensive lesson

Betting on the NFL draft is nothing new. International sportsbooks, especially those located in Central America with U.S. clientele, have been booking draft bets for more than a decade. They offer odds on everything from the first player taken to the position of Mr. Irrelevant, the last player drafted.

U.S. sportsbooks, however, weren’t allowed to book the draft until 2017, when Nevada regulators loosened protocols. The next year, the U.S. Supreme Court opened a path for other states to offer sports betting, and the NFL draft is now a staple at most sportsbooks around the nation. It has been a learning experience for American bookmakers, and an expensive one at that.

In 2018, oddsmakers at the SuperBook were gearing up for their second attempt at booking the draft. It wouldn’t go well, especially on two specific props:

• Who will get drafted first: UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen or Penn State running back Saquon Barkley? Rosen opened as a -300 favorite but closed as a +270 underdog after money poured in on Barkley.

“We just refused to believe that an NFL team would draft a running back with the second overall pick,” John Murray, executive director of the SuperBook, said. “The Giants didn’t have a quarterback then either, which, to us, made it more ridiculous that they would take a running back second overall.”

The Giants took Barkley with the second pick, and, “We just got absolutely killed,” Murray said. “It wasn’t because of any sharp players beating us, or us not paying attention. It was our decision, and we got crushed.”

• The second-most-costly prop of the 2018 draft for the SuperBook was the total number of Notre Dame players drafted in the first round. The over/under opened 1.5, with the over favored at -240. The price to bet the over closed at -1,600, a giant move off the opening number.

Notre Dame offensive guard Quenton Nelson went sixth to the Indianapolis Colts, and Fighting Irish offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey went ninth to the San Francisco 49ers.

“There was no stopping the betting,” Salmons said, thinking back to the Notre Dame prop. “It was nonstop. No one was betting the other side. We basically lost, I think, on literally every decision we had that year.”

‘A professional bettor’s dream’

Bookmakers estimate that customers they consider sharp account for 80-90% of the money bet on the NFL draft.

“It’s probably the sharpest market we book,” Murray said.

“Your best chance to win anything is to open them up a week or so in advance at the most and get lucky,” Rex Beyer, a longtime bookmaker now with the SuperBook, said.

Sportsbooks take precautions in an attempt to mitigate expected losses on the draft. The SuperBook, for example, waits until the week of the draft before posting their complete betting menu. Sportsbooks that choose to put up draft propositions early often keep betting limits tiny, somethings allowing just a couple hundred dollars max.

It can make it difficult for professional bettors to make it worth their while, but it doesn’t stop them from trying.

Rob Pizzola, a Toronto-based sports bettor and a partner of odds comparison tool betstamp, had never dabbled much in betting the draft until last year, when the coronavirus pandemic halted live games.

Pizzola says he filters out most claims of inside information that regularly circulate through the betting community, because, in his experience, “most of those tips are wrong.” Instead, he started his draft handicapping process by building profiles for general managers and beat writers in hopes of determining who was trustworthy and who was not. It worked.

Leading up to the draft, reports surfaced that the Jacksonville Jaguars, with the ninth pick in the first round, liked Florida defensive back C.J. Henderson. Pizzola said, based his profiling, he trusted the information, and with the over/under on Henderson’s draft position as high as 17.5, bet the under and even took a few stabs on the Jags taking him at No. 9 at long odds. Henderson went No. 9 to the Jaguars.

“The bets [on the draft] are pretty good,” another professional bettor, who spoke to ESPN on the condition of anonymity, said. “Rarely have we been truly surprised. Every bet is pretty much a result of projections or info changing, and books being slow to react.

“I would think the best stories will come from the bookmaker side,” the bettor added, “because they literally never win.”

There are, however, some draft-day doozies from the bettor’s side, too.

In 2016, an Illinois bettor placed a bet on the under on the draft position Ole Miss offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, who was expected go in the top 10. Shortly before the draft, the bettor was scrolling through Twitter when a video of Tunsil wearing a gas mask that had been converted into a bong surfaced.

Tunsil fell to No. 13, where he was selected by the Miami Dolphins, and the bettor lost his bet.

“It wasn’t a huge bet,” the bettor recalled, “but it was still fun to watch the money go down the drain in one literal puff of smoke.”

In the end, sportsbooks will continue to offer betting on the draft because there is customer demand. They hope the market grows and eventually attracts more money from recreational bettors to help offset the action from the pros. For now, though, it’s the cost of doing business, a loss leader for bookmakers and a gold mine for professional bettors.

“Any market that revolves around information is a professional bettor’s dream,” Metcalf, the Circa Sports bookmaker, said. “You couldn’t draw up something better for guys who spend their days scouring Twitter for information. This is as good as it gets. I’m sure there are free money opportunities at every turn.”

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