Bettors, sportsbooks adjust to COVID-19 postponements

  • Joined ESPN in 2014
  • Journalist covering gambling industry since 2008

It’s not unusual for the betting market to catch wind of an injury or suspension before it hits the mainstream media. Finding out that a starting quarterback is out before the bookmakers do is gold for bettors, but that’s not always the case in the era of COVID-19.

At 10:21 a.m. ET on Tuesday, Adam Schefter, ESPN’s senior NFL insider, tweeted that the Tennessee Titans were halting team activities after several members of the team — players and staff — had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Two days earlier, after the Titans had been installed as small favorites over Pittsburgh in a Week 4 clash of unbeatens, enough influential money had come in on the Steelers to move the line and make them the favorites. Pittsburgh went from being a 1-point underdog to a consensus 2-point favorite by Tuesday morning, before Schefter reported the positive tests.

Sportsbook PointsBet reported some “sharp nibbles” on the Steelers in the days leading up to the news of a coronavirus outbreak within the Titans organization, and other books also said they took money on Pittsburgh before the news broke and betting on the game was halted. The interest in the Steelers, though, wasn’t significant enough to make bookmakers suspicious that information was leaked.

“I think we’re pretty much on top of it,” Johnny Avello, DraftKings’ sportsbook director, said on Sunday. “That doesn’t mean we get the news immediately, when a bettor gets it, but we get it shortly after. Are there a couple bets that pass through? Yes, but nothing significant that has hurt us.”

John Murray, executive director of the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, said that a sharp betting group did bet the Steelers on Monday, but he doesn’t believe it was related to Tennessee’s positive coronavirus tests.

“I guess it’s possible that was some kind of inside info related to the virus but I think it’s more likely that it was nothing but a coincidence,” Murray told ESPN. “But that’s definitely something we need to monitor, especially in college football. Always teaching these younger guys and gals in the risk room — have your TweetDecks up.”

At 11:05 a.m. ET on Saturday, Schefter again tweeted news that affected the betting market: “Patriots QB Cam Newton tested positive and is out for Sunday’s game vs. Kansas City.”

Unlike the Steelers-Titans game, however, there was no advance line movement on the Patriots-Chiefs game. Kansas City had been a 6.5- or 7-point favorite at most books all week. John Sheeran, FanDuel’s sportsbook director, did not see any indication that the betting market was aware that Newton was out. “Schefter is too fast for that,” Sheeran told ESPN.

Schefter’s speed might not be the only detail that’s deterring bettors from getting the jump on books with information related to COVID-19. When a quarterback, for example, is ruled out with a traditional injury, the game goes on; not with COVID-19, though. The Steelers-Titans game has been postponed until later in the season, and the Patriots-Chiefs game was moved to Monday night.

Sportsbook rules often require games to be played on their original date for bets to be valid. Therefore, betting against a team with players who test positive for COVID-19 might be useless, if the house rules make the wagers on a rescheduled game void.

“If you get involved with it, there’s a good chance that you won’t have a bet anyway,” Jeff Whitelaw, a respected Las Vegas sports bettor, said. “You don’t want the bookmakers to get upset that you’re trying to jam it down their throat. The majority of the time, you’re not going to get a bet anyway.”

The Patriots, without Newton, reopened as 10.5-point underdogs to the Chiefs. New England hasn’t been this big an underdog in a game since Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams in 2002. The Patriots won that game 20-17, their first of six Super Bowl victories under coach Bill Belichick.

Here is this week’s edition of Notable Bets, our recap of the betting action and storylines from sportsbooks around the nation:

NFL notable bets

• The giant bets DraftKings has been taking in recent weeks got even bigger this weekend and, this time, they were winners. The sportsbook reported taking a $2 million three-team money-line parlay that featured Florida (-667 vs. South Carolina), Tennessee (-500 vs. Missouri) and the Rams (-835 vs. the Giants). Each team prevailed, and the bettor won a net $1.1 million.

DraftKings also reported taking a $1.4 million bet on Over 42 in the Jaguars-Bengals game at -263, one of the largest reported regular-season bets in the U.S. market ever. The consensus total on the game closed at 49.5, so the bettor paid the extra juice to get it at 42.5. The game cruised over, with the Bengals winning 33-25, and the bettor won a net $531,319.

Last week, DraftKings reported taking a $795,200 bet on a similar alternate total, Over 41.5 (-270) in the Thursday night game between the Jaguars and Dolphins, which was a winner. In addition, DraftKings took two $500,000 bets last week, one on the Giants +4 versus the 49ers and the other on Giants quarterback Daniel Jones’ passing yards in that game. Both Giants bets were losers.

DraftKings did not disclose if the most recent big bets were from the same customer as last week.

• Sportsbooks around the nation described Sunday as a small winning day. “Decent day,” Nick Bogdanovich, director of trading for William Hill U.S., told ESPN.

• Bogdanovich pointed to the Panthers’ upset of the favored Cardinals, and the Giants covering as 13.5-point underdogs in a 17-9 loss to the Rams, as the best two games for his books.

• BetMGM reported taking a $330,000 bet and a $230,000 bet on the Cardinals at -3 (-115). The Panthers won 31-21.

• The betting public did well on the Seahawks covering in a 31-23 win over the Dolphins and the Colts covering in a 19-11 win over the Bears.

• BetMGM reported taking a $550,000 bet on the Seahawks -6.5.

• The Seahawks are now 8-1-1 against the spread the past three seasons in early kickoffs on the East Coast.

• The Browns-Cowboys game attracted the most lopsided betting action at the sportsbook at The Borgata in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where 96% of money wagered was on the favored Cowboys. “Even the Washington Football Team had more money and tickets wagered on them than the Browns,” Borgata sportsbook director Tom Gable told ESPN. The Browns won 49-38.

• Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was 36-1 to score the first touchdown in the Sunday night game against the 49ers. Wentz scored on an 11-yard run in the first quarter, the first TD of the game. A bettor at FanDuel won $21,645 off a $585 bet on Wentz to score the first TD.

College football

• College football underdogs went 23-7 against the spread on Saturday.

• The largest reported college football bet at FanDuel on Saturday was $150,000 on Auburn +7.5. The Tigers lost 27-6 at Georgia.

• The sportsbook at the South Point in Las Vegas took a $60,000 money-line bet on Oklahoma to beat Iowa State at -300, according to oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro. The bet would’ve won a net $20,000, but the Cyclones rallied past the Sooners in the second half for a 37-30 win.

• Bad beat: Army closed as a consensus 31-point favorite over Abilene Christian. The underdog Wildcats cut into Army’s lead with a touchdown late in the fourth quarter but missed the extra point, leaving the score 48-23 with 3 minutes to play. Army recovered the ensuing onside kick and looked in position to run out the clock after converting a fourth-and-1 from the Abilene Christian 37-yard line. Instead, Anthony Adkins broke off a 28-yard touchdown run and Quinn Maretzki made the extra point. Final score: Army 55, Abilene Christian 23.

• Notable opening lines for this week’s slate via Las Vegas sportsbook Circa Sports:

Miami, Florida at Clemson (-16, 60.5)
Tennessee at Georgia (-14, 43.5)
Oklahoma (-2, 70.5) vs. Texas
Alabama (-23, 79.5) at Ole Miss
Florida (-7, 54.5) at Texas A&M
Florida State at Notre Dame (-21, 54.5)

MLB/NBA

• There are multiple million-dollar bets alive as the divisional rounds of the MLB playoffs get going this week:

In early July, before the abbreviated baseball season started, Derek Stevens, a Las Vegas casino owner, placed a $5,000 bet on the Miami Marlins to win the National League pennant at 200-1, and a $2,500 bet on the Marlins to win the World Series. Each bet was placed at the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas and would pay a net $1 million. The Marlins face the Atlanta Braves in a National League division series beginning on Tuesday.

BetMGM’s sportsbook reported taking a $100,000 wager last week on the Houston Astros to win the World Series at 25-1. The bet would pay a net $2.5 million. The Astros will take on the Oakland A’s in an American League division series beginning on Monday.

• The Los Angeles Lakers were 10.5-point favorites over the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. That was the fifth-highest point spread in a Finals game in the past 30 seasons, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

Odds and ends

• On Wednesday, 5Dimes, an online sportsbook based in Costa Rica that has been popular with American bettors for two decades, agreed to pay $46.8 million to settle a money-laundering investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and cease taking wagers from bettors based in the U.S. 5Dimes is now attempting to join the regulated sports betting market in the U.S.

• New Jersey is the best state for sports bettors according to the Wedge Index, a ratings system that uses criteria such as customer feedback, number of sportsbook options and prevalence of online sports betting. Pennsylvania comes in at No. 2, followed by Colorado, Indiana and Illinois.

Surprisingly, Nevada — long considered the epicenter of sports betting in the U.S. — is ranked 10th, primarily because the state requires bettors to register for mobile betting accounts in person. And it lacks what the Wedge Index considers “Tier 1” operators — sportsbooks that received the highest grades from customers in surveys conducted by Wedge News.

• Sportsbook and online casino operator 888 released a financial report last week on the first six months of the year. Despite essentially all major sporting events shutting down due to the pandemic, 888 reported only a 1% decrease in betting revenue from January through June, while online poker and online casino gambling saw significant increases — 56% and 48%, respectively.

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