Odds On The Oddities: COVID-19 Plunged Bookmakers Beyond Their Normal Lines Of Comfort

Written By Brant James on June 19, 2020 - Last Updated on June 16, 2020

Johnny Avello doesn’t pretend to be an authority on the top tier of Faroe Island soccer.

But right there atop the DraftKings live offerings on a late-May Tuesday afternoon, Klaksvik was a -50,000 moneyline favorite, leading 3-0 in the final two minutes against Streymur.

But maybe everyone knows nobody parks the bus in the Faroe Islands like Klaksvik. Actually, does anyone anywhere know this?

 And even with this result all but – and eventually, actually – certain and plenty of human and computing power in concert to form this consensus, someone had to set an opening line. And experts on this obscure league would seemingly be in short supply, even at ever-expanding DraftKings, where Avello is head of sportsbook.

The answer is in an anecdote. And TikTok. And JLo.

“I always think of bookmakers who have been in the business for a while as an exceptional talent,” Avello told PlayUSA. “I was watching Jimmy Fallon the other night and he had JLo on there. And so him and J-Lo would watch TikTok and then somebody would do a dance move, and then they would both try to replicate that dance.

“Jimmy Fallon did okay, but J-Lo nailed it. She only had to watch it once. She didn’t get it perfectly, but she got it once. And that’s the way I see it: an experienced bookmaker doesn’t take long to catch on. A little bit of research, knowing the game and watching the game a few times. And then players, knowing the players, that’s what it takes. And then bookmakers can, can, they just can adapt to anything.”

COVID-19 shutdowns bring new leagues and betting markets to front

That’s been a precious skill at the world’s sports betting establishments since March 11, when the shuttering of all major college and professional sports globally in response to the COVID-19 pandemic forced oddsmakers to become creative with betting markets and competent quickly in areas in which they often had little experience.

As in Russian table tennis, Sumo wrestling, eSports, including iRacing, and all manner of pro soccer, from Belarus to the Faroe Islands. And it’ll remain that way until a safe way to bring back the leagues familiar to North Americans return.

Circa Sports Sportsbook Operations Manager Jeffrey Benson said his staff focused on particular areas of expertise – the NFL, baseball, golf and NASCAR – and relied on ‘market numbers’ to establish odds on the oddities.

“There’s obviously certain sports we’re much more well versed in and Belarussian soccer and Counter-Strike and Overwatch and Call of Duty and things of that nature probably aren’t our strong suit,” he conceded. “But what I’ll say in a counterpoint to that is …for some of those sports, we may just kind of put up market numbers and let the bets dictate where those numbers go.

“In terms of some of the other sports that we’ve really been focusing on [when the sportsbook was closed through May 7] our sportsbook manager, Chris Bennett, and our director, Matt Metcalf, who have both been in the industry ten-plus years and are tremendous oddsmakers and bookmakers, they really focused on sports that they specialize in.”

Bennett concocted “probably one of the most extensive NFL Draft props, not only in the city but in the world,” Benson said, and are among the earliest daily lines, he contends, for the Korean Baseball Organization.

“Matt Metcalf, he kind of cut his teeth in the industry when he was at the Westgate and when he was betting professionally, with his NASCAR acumen. So when NASCAR went away and they were booking eNASCAR, we were kind of the market maker, just in terms of the future book, yes/no’s, group matchups, head-to-head driver match-ups, things like that.”

Metcalf’s propensity for setting golf odds was handy, Benson said, when the PGA and LPGA went dark.

“We were really able to focus on some of these smaller mini tours,” Benson noted. “So, for us that was the Cactus Tour and then the Outlaw Tour. We were able to put up quite a few offerings on that in terms of match-ups to win the event. And so I would say that’s really kind of what we’ve focused on, things that we’re really, really good at.”

 William Hill Trading Director Nick Bogdanovich said his parent company’s location in Leeds, England provided a pre-existing knowledge base on some Euro-centric sports, particularly obscure soccer leagues.

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Data a commodity as oddsmakers get smart fast

PointsBet Content Manager Andrew Mannino had few opinions about Russian ping-pong before mid-March. Neither were many of his oddsmakers. But the fact that the sport – which has proved popular with bettors – grinds out so many matches allowed them to acquire a precious commodity: data. And then the algorithms do what they do with any other sport regardless of its notoriety.

“The process itself isn’t too different from other sports,” Mannino told PlayUSA. “I didn’t know a lot of the players in Ukrainian Setka Cup table tennis, but they play each other about every 20 minutes. You see the same guys play each other a couple times a day, every day for a week. And so they have head-to-head records and we can use that and run our quantitative analysis and figure out what we believe the price should be, what we believe the opening line should be, what we believe the total should be based on their historical matches and then we can move off that.”

And like at Circa, Mannino said, PointsBet attempts to be nimble with adjustments.

“When the market tells us we’re wrong, we’ll adjust the price and book-make it,” he said. “It’s a more pure experience from our perspective because we don’t have those biases or preconceived notions.”

Brant James Avatar
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Brant James

Brant James is a veteran journalist who has twice been recognized in the Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, most recently in 2020. He's covered motorsports, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball among a myriad of others beats and written enterprise and sports business for publications including USA TODAY, ESPN.com, SI.com.

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