Notable Bets: NFL underdogs taking toll on betting public

AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes

Entering Week 14, NFL underdogs had posted a winning record against the spread in eight of the past nine weeks. Overall, underdogs had covered the spread in 56.9% of games this season, a mark that would be the best in any season since 1980, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.

Unfortunately for the betting public, they've never been overly fond of the underdogs -- certainly not this season, and it has resulted in what one veteran Las Vegas bookmaker called his "best NFL season."

Week after week, the sportsbooks have come out ahead, winning Sunday after Sunday and most days in between. November might have been the best month BetMGM's sportsbooks in Nevada have ever experienced, according to director of race and sports Jeff Stoneback.

"Most of that was attributed to the NFL," Stoneback said. "It's gotten really sour for the bettors since the first of November."

This Sunday was a little sweeter for bettors compared to some other recent weeks. Favorites went 8-6 against the spread, resulting in some sportsbooks suffering a rare losing day.

Stoneback said the Bills' win over the Steelers in the prime-time game sealed the first losing Sunday his book had suffered in over a month. The SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas also reported a losing day.

"We are going to be a small loser for the day, but I won't get my beggar's cup out," John Murray, executive director of the SuperBook, told ESPN. "We have won every Sunday for weeks. Only one of those Sundays was a huge winner, but it seems like we have been consistently winning a respectable number each week in the NFL."

Here is this week's edition of Notable Bets, our weekly look at the betting story lines from around the sports world.

NFL

• While BetMGM Nevada and the SuperBook suffered losses, other bookmakers reported a winning Sunday. William Hill U.S. director of trading Nick Bogdanovich called Sunday "decent," while FanDuel sportsbook director John Sheeran described Sunday as "solid" and pointed to the Lions covering the spread in a 31-24 loss to the Packers, and the underdog Eagles' 24-21 upset of the Saints as two big results for the house.

The Eagles' win was big for the sportsbook at The Borgata in Atlantic City, N.J. Borgata sportsbook director Tom Gable said the Eagles eliminated "huge" liability on teasers. "We already took a hit on the two-team teasers in the early slate with Tampa and Kansas City, but New Orleans is included in a lot of three-team teasers," Gable told ESPN. "The Eagles game will make or break the day for us."

• Sportsbook operator PointsBet described Sunday as average, "not the best, not the worst, with multiple games displaying strong two-way action to further even out the overall result." PointsBet's biggest wins came in the Bears' 36-7 rout of the Texans, the Dolphins covering the spread in a 33-27 loss to the Chiefs, and the Chargers' 20-17 win over the Falcons.

The Titans' 31-10 win over the Jaguars, the Buccaneers' 26-14 win over the Vikings and the Cowboys' 30-7 win over the Bengals were the most costly for PointsBet.

• "We've had some really good weeks this season," Johnny Avello, sportsbook director for DraftKings, said. "This week, here, is the normal kind of week. We're not doing as great. I think we're even or so."

• The Bucs covering against the Vikings and the Cardinals covering in a 26-7 win over the Giants produced the two biggest losses of the early games for BetMGM books. The Titans also came through for bettors at BetMGM, particularly one customer who included Tennessee on a pair of $100,000 two-team parlays that hit.

• The SuperBook reported taking a $3,000 money-line bet on the Jets to beat the Seahawks at +750. The Seahawks blew out the winless Jets 40-3.

• Two hours prior to kickoff of the Sunday night game, the action at BetMGM was very even in terms of number of wagers, with the Steelers having attracted just 13 more point-spread bets than the Bills. The money was another story. "It's one of those where I'm going to need to get out the calculator," Stoneback said. "The money is like 14-1 [on Buffalo]. All the larger bets have been on the Bills."

Stoneback mentioned a $200,000 bet on the Bills, along with some five-figure action on Buffalo, as the cause of the lopsided money.

The Bills won 26-15.·Stoneback said he had no complaints, though, and noted that his book's NFL hold percentage -- the amount the house keeps from the amount wagered -- was up significantly this season.

• The SuperBook said that while its hold percentage on the NFL was slightly down compared to last season, the betting handle was up year over year. That's despite the Las Vegas sportsbook operating at limited capacity throughout the season due to the pandemic.

"Our handle is actually up almost 10% from 2019 in the NFL which is surprising," Murray said. "The hold percentage is a little lower than last year, which makes sense. Generally speaking, we hold much better over the counter than we do on mobile accounts, and our percentage of handle on the mobile accounts is higher than ever before."

College football

• Army defeated Navy 15-0 on Saturday. It was the 15th straight meeting between Army and Navy that stayed under the total. The total closed at 36 at most sportsbooks. At PointsBet, 75% of the money bet on the total was on the under.

• Alabama covered the spread for a seventh straight time with a 52-3 drubbing of Arkansas. That is the longest such streak for Nick Saban in his coaching career, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

• LSU upset Florida as a 23-point underdog on Saturday. Heading into the fourth quarter with Florida leading, a bettor placed a $10,000 money-line bet with William Hill on the Tigers at 4-1 odds and earned a $40,000 payday when LSU pulled out a 37-34 victory.

• College football conference championship game lines via Las Vegas sportsbook Circa Sports:

Big Ten: Northwestern vs. Ohio State (-20, 59)
Big 12: Oklahoma (-6, 58.5) vs. Iowa State
Sun Belt: UL-Lafayette vs. Coastal Carolina (-4, 53.5)
ACC: Clemson (-11, 61.5) vs. Notre Dame
CUSA: Tulsa vs. Cincinnati (-16, 48.5)
SEC: Alabama (-17, 74.5) vs. Florida
MWC: Boise State (-8) vs. San Jose State
Pac-12: Washington vs. USC (-6.5, 58.5)

Three questions with ...

... international gambling analyst Alun Bowden

Government officials are embarking on an encompassing review of gambling laws in the United Kingdom. Alun Bowden, a respected senior consultant with research firm Eilers and Krejcik Gaming, shared his thoughts about what issues sparked the review, what will come from it and how the U.S. industry can learn from what has transpired in the U.K.

Q: What primary factors do you believe drove the review of gambling laws in the U.K.?

A: It has been a long, slow process to get to this point with a lot of leg work done by gambling reform campaigners and a large volume of media coverage on issues such as sports sponsorship, operator fines, players stealing to fund gambling addiction and child gambling. Allied to this, you've had the gambling industry pushing at an open door when it came to regulation, and the sheer ubiquity of the industry beginning to attract negative reactions from some parts of the public. It's a similar picture across most of Europe.

Q: Do you expect meaningful change in regards to sports betting to come out of the review?

A: Yes, very much so. I would expect there to be affordability limits applied fairly broadly, although sports betting may be given higher thresholds and almost certainly won't face stake limits. The other big issue is around sports sponsorships, and while this is harder to handicap it feels like some level of restrictions must be inevitable here as it's such a hot-button issue. It seems like the industry may not face restrictions on in-play betting, but this can't be ruled out and is a key issue for some campaigners.

Q: What is the biggest lesson the growing U.S. sports betting industry can learn from the U.K. industry?

A: Don't repeat the same mistakes. With the expansion of gambling will come the expansion of attention on problem gambling, and you need to make sure those players are looked after on both a regulatory and operator level. Also don't underestimate how quickly public opinion can turn, and just what an impact an overload of gambling sponsorships and advertising can have on that public mood.

Odds and ends

• A new exchange market that will allow sportsbook operators to lay off any unwanted risk is awaiting final certification from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

ErisX anticipates its filing will be posted on the CFTC's website this week, one of the final steps before the exchange launches tentatively in the first quarter of 2021. ErisX is a futures exchange, regulated by the CFTC, and a clearinghouse.

Individual bettors will not have access to exchange. Licensed sportsbook operators and ErisX' established market-makers are expected to provide the liquidity.

"These contracts give [sportsbooks] the opportunity to expand their capacity," Thomas Chippas, CEO at ErisX, told ESPN. "They may find if they can lay off some of that risk and bring their books back into balance, they may be able to offer tighter lines, encouraging more people to participate, and they might be able to expand the size of their handles."

Jeff Ifrah, a prominent Washington, D.C.-based gaming attorney, who helped set up the exchange, believes retail business is moving away from inventory risk. Ifrah says that sportsbook operators who are forced to tie up dollars to cover liability on wagers often resort to limiting bettors, producing an overall bad consumer experience.

"YouTube does not take a bet on the videos that it serves up. It's a platform that lets the consumer decide what it wants to consume," Ifrah told ESPN. "Hedging is going to fix all this."