Sports is slowly coming back to North America, and that means that sports betting is returning, too. With baseball restarted and the N.B.A. and the N.H.L. soon to follow, bookmakers and bettors are confronting the questions that were forgotten for several months: Who are the favorites? Who has no hope? How can I make some money? And how does the coronavirus pandemic affect it all?
Baseball plans to play 60 games, instead of its usual 162, in this regular season. Sixteen teams will make the playoffs, and the first round is just a best-of-three-game series. Sounds like a crapshoot that almost any team can win.
So why are the Yankees and Dodgers such heavy favorites? Both teams are about 4-1 to win the World Series, an astonishingly short price given that they will have to make the playoffs in a sprint, then win four straight series. No other team is less than 10-1.
Bookmakers are unanimous: It’s not us; it’s the bettors.
“The Dodgers and Yankees are perennially the most bet on teams to win the World Series,” said Dave Mason, the sports book brand manager at BetOnline.ag. “Because of that expected volume, we have to limit our liability for these teams, and the best way to do that is keep their futures odds as low as possible.”
James Murphy, an oddsmaker at Sports Insider, noted that in the middle of last summer, the Astros and Dodgers were 3-1 to win the World Series and the Yankees 4-1. The eventual winner, though, was the Nationals, who were 25-1. “I was surprised to see that the futures prices are actually more top-heavy this year,” he said.
So if the Yankees and the Dodgers are underpriced, where can a baseball bettor find a wise investment?
“The smart money — at least among the professional bettors I know in Nevada — really hit the Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins hard,” Murphy said. (The Brewers stand at about 30-1 and the Twins 15-1 to win the World Series.) “Since the favorites are always so overvalued in baseball, by definition the other teams are undervalued.”
As you might expect, the Lakers and the Bucks, who had the two best records in the interrupted regular season, are the favorites at 5-2, with the Clippers just behind at 3-1.
But where is the love for the Raptors? Though they have the league’s third best record, and are the reigning champions, they stand at a whopping 20-1 to win it all.
“The Raptors are a very solid team, but they play in a very weak East, and they lack star power without Kawhi Leonard,” said Pat Morrow, head oddsmaker at Bovada. “Without that legitimate No. 1 player on the team, there is a limit on how far you can go.”
On the other hand, the Rockets, who have the league’s ninth-best record, are a well-bet 12-1. “Casual bettors want to back superstars,” Murphy said. “The James Harden-Russell Westbrook-led Rockets are perceived as a better team than the Pascal Siakam-Serge Ibaka-led Raptors.”
This despite the uncertainties after Westbrook tested positive for the virus and was quarantined.
Depending on how they fare in the final eight regular-season games, the Rockets could be as low as the seventh seed in the West. But “the seeding shouldn’t make much of an impact because there is no travel and no home-court advantage,” Mason said.
So where’s the value?
“The ‘sharps,’ at least the ones I know, really like Boston and Dallas as well as Toronto,” Murphy said. Boston is about 18-1 to win the title and Dallas can be had for 35-1 or even more at some sports books.
Under the new playoff format, eight of the 24 teams that will contest the Stanley Cup playoffs get a bye, obviously a significant advantage. And not surprisingly, those teams have the lowest odds.
But one other team joins them. Despite not having a bye, the Penguins are as low as 12-1, the kind of price that bye teams are getting, despite having to beat the Canadiens in a best-of-five-game opening-round series.
Once again, it’s because of a star. “It’s the Sidney Crosby factor,” Murphy said.
He pointed out that in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, the Penguins were favored in every game even though the Lightning fought them tooth and nail before falling in seven games. “It was amazing how the money kept coming in for Pittsburgh despite the parity in that series,” Murphy said.
The team Pittsburgh will have to beat in that opening series got a second life, in the league and with bettors. It certainly appeared that the Canadiens would not make the playoffs under the normal 16-game format. Just before the league paused, they were 500-1 to win the Stanley Cup, Morrow said. Now, with the expansion of the playoffs, they have a shot, and those 500-1 tickets appear to have some value. The Canadiens are now 66-1.
Setting the Lines
Bookmakers have historical data, power rankings and years of experience, all of which go into setting a solid line. Then the world is hit by a pandemic and much of it goes out the window.
“The biggest adjustment we’ve had to make is accounting for the lack of home-field advantage,” Mason said. “Every team and venue holds a certain value, which is baked into the lines. But when we remove the emotional and psychological element of a home advantage, the odds have to be adjusted.”
Murphy said that some top bettors have said the absence of fans might mean weaker defensive intensity among players. “That makes sense, but there’s no way to validate that until the games begin,” he said.
Morrow said that over-under totals on baseball are having to be adjusted because of the new rule that puts a runner on second base in extra innings. “It’s much more likely that extra innings will have multiple runs,” he said. The addition of the designated hitter in the National League will also bump up run totals in that league’s games.
Murphy said that some sharp bettors were sitting out this season entirely because of the uncertainties. But not the casual players. “You’ve got recreational bettors that haven’t had any major sports who are anxious to bet,” he said.
And after months of betting on table tennis, South Korean baseball and e-sports, they finally have the action they have been craving.