The Good Life

The Sports Betting Boom

Agile technology and increased opportunity have sparked a sports gambling renaissance
| By Michael Kaplan | From Dustin Johnson and Paulina Gretzky, March/April 2021
The Sports Betting Boom

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Atlantic City. Inside the sportsbook of Ocean Casino Resort, gamblers’ eyes dart between open betting apps on their phones and athletic play on the dozen or so monitors that fill a front-and-center wall. Games of football and basketball can be seen unspooling inside empty stadiums and arenas—a sensible bid aimed at stopping the spread of coronavirus—but lack of spectators is no issue at Ocean. There are plenty of fans in the house. In fact, from here in A.C. to Las Vegas, and many points in between, business at the books is booming and some casinos are investing mightily.

At the newly opened Circa, in downtown Las Vegas, for example, a three-story-tall, high-definition screen floods the room with action, and games can be viewed (as well as wagered on) inside the casino or out at a 24/7 complex of pools, cabanas and hot tubs.

Back in A.C., professional gambler Neil Wallis doesn’t miss the watery diversions, but he does revel in the large range of 

options afforded by 11 sports-betting emporiums and more than a dozen apps that have launched in New Jersey since 2018. “With all the new sportsbooks,” he says, “there are a lot of ways for us to find the key numbers [ideal odds or pointspreads] that we need.”

Wallis is among the millions of gamblers contributing to a renaissance in sports betting that broke records and exceeded expectations over the course of the last year. This past August, Americans wagered more than $2 billion, shattering the August 2019 total by 90 percent. Casino sportsbook revenues went beyond $125 million for that month alone. 

“We’re a sports-crazed country and betting comes down to people believing that they have more knowledge than the bookies or everyone else in the market,” says Tom Gable, director of race and sports at Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, long regarded as Atlantic City’s closest approximation to a Vegas spot. “The population engaging in sports betting has always been large. Now some of those people are crossing over into the legal markets.”

Beyond the breadth of sports wagering outposts—legally available in 18 states, plus Washington D.C.—the act of gambling on games is not what it used to be. In fact, people who simply bet pointspreads and money lines and totals prior to kickoffs or tip-offs or opening pitches are largely missing the point. 

Enhanced technology, for bet makers and for bet takers, has allowed casinos to slip in new and shiny variants in which suckers get suckered and sharp gamblers find edges. They include opportunities to gamble on everything from a quarterback’s passing yards over the course of a possession to how many hits a baseball team will get in an inning; all manner of bonuses and free-plays (there for the taking) are now de rigeur and the ability to create hedges becomes financially handy as contests go on. Known as in-game betting and a longstanding staple in Europe, it permits gamblers to move in and out of positions based on the action that unfolds. It is the form of gambling that Wallis most prefers. 

Asked why, he recalls a Ball State v. University of Buffalo game, from last year. It illustrates the possibilities that are out there for astute gamblers. “Ball State came in as a 14-point underdog and I bet them,” Wallis recounts, telling his tale with no shortage of relish. “Buffalo is usually pretty stout but Ball State was having no trouble moving the ball against them. They were not going away. In the second quarter, the score was tied, Buffalo had possession and Ball State was now getting 10. I took it.” Touchdowns for both sides followed. It was late in the second quarter and the line dipped to 7 ½. “I said to myself, ‘This is a dead-even game.’ Records did not mean anything and the underdog was playing competitively. I took Ball State again. The game stayed neutral and I got in one more bet at 7. Ball State wound up winning.”

Some sharp gamblers take it even further, making in-game wagers that seem stunningly meta for those accustomed to the old way. Todd Wishnev, an avid sports bettor who works in finance and gambles out of Pennsylvania, occasionally finds opportunities to bet on specific events taking place in short terms. “The juice [percentage of vigorish charged by casinos on such prop bets] is elevated, so you need to be doubly sure of what you’re doing,” cautions Wishnev, who makes such wagers only under optimal conditions. “But if the 1, 2, 3, 4 batters are coming up, betting [on a run being scored that inning] can be good. If Mookie Betts is batting and he has a .455 lifetime average against the pitcher, there is a good chance he will give the pitcher trouble.”

Gill Alexander, who hosts the gambling-centric TV show “Prime Time Action” on MSG+, likes the in-game opportunities for the NBA, a league that’s notoriously difficult to beat via outcome wagers made prior to tipoff. “If there is a basketball favorite, like the Warriors when they were busy winning championships, that winds up trailing by double-digits, they make for phenomenal in-game bets,” he says. “Down 15 points, the Warriors were a better bet than they were pre flop.” Describing when they tended to be serious favorites against most opponents, he adds, “The good wager, in that situation, was that they simply had to win the game without me giving up any points.”

Wallis feels that gamblers around the United States can now get an upper hand in the betting realm. “The books only analyze the score and the line,” he says. “Handicappers look at everything that is going on and get a feel for what might happen.”  

Veteran sports-betting pro Logan Fields remembers half-watching a U.S. Open tennis match while prepping for an NFL Sunday. “I saw one of the guys rubbing his back and cramping up,” recalls Fields, author of 20/20 Sports Betting: Think Like a Pro. “There was in-game betting, 250 wagers were available on the match and linemakers were not adjusting enough for the injury. The man could barely walk,” he explains. “I just kept hitting that one over and over again. It was not a difficult decision.”

Clearly, it’s a brave new world with new opportunities, some of which are known only to insiders or there to be figured out (and maybe even improved upon) by arrivistes. One thing that is impossible to miss is that burgeoning, hotly competing sports books are hungry for business. So much so that they actually pay money to newly signed-up gamblers, sometimes without even requiring much of a bet. This became obvious during a visit to Borgata, owned by the mighty MGM Resorts International. 

To accommodate their new breed of gamblers, managers at Borgata have installed a sportsbook on one side of a corridor near the poker room and a sort of sports-bar/grill on the other side. Both, obviously, are garnished with giant screen TVs and betting windows, which look like lonely spots as gamblers there tend to wager via mobile apps. But, upon entering either room, the mostly male clientele encounters another kind of garnish: attractive women, holding wireless tablets, looking for business. The business is betting and the incentive is decent. At rock
bottom, you can deposit $25 via PayPal or a checking account, make a random $1 bet and receive two $50 free bets in exchange. One looks for the strings and there are none, save that the free bets need to be placed within seven days or else the offer expires. It is the way many sportsbooks are building business, sometimes offering bonuses that yield $1,000 or more.

For how long can the free money flow? “I think the bonus offers will go on until operators are satisfied that they are out of player acquisition mode,” says Gable. “Right now, they’re not focused on profitability. They are focused on acquiring players.” 

New mega-operators in the sports betting space, FanDuel and DraftKings (which each manage bookmaking for a number of casinos across the United States) have taken the concept even further. On occasion, they’ve shelled out so-called “bad beat” rebates. If, let’s say, your team looks like a lock to cover the pointspread but blows it in the final minutes, the sites, which first enjoyed incredible success by offering various iterations of fantasy sports, will give you your money back. Such was the case last December when a 55-yard field goal, kicked with two seconds left, cleared the crossbars to give the Baltimore Ravens a 45–42 lead over the Cleveland Browns. Considering that the Browns were getting three points, the game looked like a push until the Ravens made a safety that turned the Browns into losers on the scoreboard and in the sportsbook.

That was when FanDuel and DraftKings did the unthinkable: Both offered financial breaks to the last-minute losers. Never mind that sportsbooks are not exactly known for making unfortunate gamblers whole, competition is keen enough that they’re resorting to graciousness. “We want to make sure the customer has a good experience,” insists Jamie Shea, vice president of sportsbook operations for DraftKings. “We want to do what’s right by the customer and want them to have fun. We’ve all watched games, seen calls and said, ‘Oh, come on!’ ”

But DraftKings is not just doing it to be kind, right? “I think we kind of are,” insists Shea. “DraftKings is customer-centric and we want to make sure players stay engaged with the site.” 

It’s enough to make you love your sportsbook, and there are gamblers hitting the road in order to do just that—sort of. “If you are willing to put miles on your car, you can go from state to state and get $10,000 here and $10,000 there,” says pro gambler Gina Fiore. “You need to know how to bet optimally in order to actually get the money and there are terms and conditions, so you need to read them carefully.” She says the new bookmaking operations have marketing money to spare, “and they are giving it away.” 

All of this raises a question: Where does the burgeoning world of legit sports-betting leave the deeply entrenched motherland? Las Vegas, after all, had historically reigned as the only destination in the nation for people who wanted to bet sports legally. It had been that way since 1949. Everything changed in 2018, when the Supreme Court of the United States removed the federal ban on sports betting. New operators came in to manage 

action for brick-and-mortar casinos—888, Bet365 and William Hill join DraftKings and FanDuel in benefitting from the new regulations—and Nevada operators began to seem like taxi drivers in the age of Uber. 

Matthew Metcalf, sportsbook director of Circa, which also operates a sportsbook in Colorado, acknowledges that Vegas has been a bit slow to keep up with emerging technology that has ignited sports-betting around the United States. “I think Las Vegas is five years behind,” acknowledges Metcalf, who proudly adds that Circa is first out with NFL lines every week. While the Vegas books do offer in-game, more unusual prop bets tend to be reserved for the Super Bowl. “A lot of what Las Vegas does is cater to people betting large sums of money. Las Vegas has a larger appetite for risk.” Some of the new operators in the sports-betting field, he explains, “are more selective in offering limits than we are.”

To show the difference between the competition outside of Vegas and what his town has to offer, Metcalf says that new competitors are picky about who they allow to place high limit bets. Sharp players get only minimal amounts, while consistent losers can bet the ranch. Not in Las Vegas. “We are very transparent about telling people they can bet $50,000 on an NFL side on our app and bet it as often as they want as long as they give us an opportunity to move the line,” he says. 

As for giving sign-up bonuses and do-overs for games lost in the final seconds, Metcalf, who looks forward to eventually offering a wide passel of exotic wagers, is not having it. “We offer a product,” he says, “that is more like a financial market and less like entertainment.”

Fields agrees with the sentiment. He’s based in Southern California, where he expects his craft to remain illegal until 2023, and hasn’t ventured far from home or his computer. “It’s still Vegas and the offshores that take the heaviest action,” he says. “If you don’t have an offshore account you are not a professional.”

At least one big-time bettor forsakes his adopted hometown of Vegas whenever possible. Over plates of veal parmigiana at Dolce Mare in Ocean, Bill Krackomberger, who works with a computer-savvy handicapper and bets sports professionally, has been bitten by the Atlantic City bug. He lays his iPad on the table and opens up his DraftKings account to display a laundry-list of wagers. “I’m coming here to make prop bets that I can’t make in Vegas,” he says, showing a $50,000 cash arsenal ready to be deployed. “I would never have that sum in a Vegas account. There are not enough bets to make there. Here, there are 200 bets to make on each of tonight’s games with DraftKings. In Vegas, you have maybe 20. I like betting first score and last score.” Referring to a game that started before his entree arrived, he adds, “Tonight, we have A.J. Dillon to score last.”

Clearly, that proved to be a good wager. The Titans got trounced and made the final touchdown in the game for Green Bay.

While Krackomberger insists that he does not take advantage of the bonuses as much as he could (though there was the $10,000 he says he received in exchange for making a $50,000 deposit) he calls anyone who doesn’t do it “a fool” and is enamored with high-risk/high-reward opportunities. He points to what illicit bookies used to call “lightning bets,” which seem too degenerate to exist in legit sportsbooks. But they do. In A.C., they’re known as “points bet” wagering. 

“I can wager $100 per point for every point that Tennessee wins by tonight,” he says. “So, if they take it by 20, I get $1,700,” accounting for the team being a three-point underdog. On the down side, he adds, “If they lose by 20, I lose $2,300.”

Told that it sounds wildly aggressive bordering on insane, Krackomberger more or less agrees: “So aggressive that a guy won $600,000 at PointsBet.com in just one game. He bet $30,000 a point.”

If such high-flying forms of betting are not yet common in Vegas, they may be soon. Former poker pro and author of strategy books Ed Miller is working with data analyst Matthew Davidow to create technology that will be deployed by Circa (the pair already provides numbers for the casino’s more straightforward and in-game wagering). Eventually, says Miller, “we’ll do in-play betting where people can make up their own parlays,”—even, say, a total number of points being scored in a basketball game and a parallel football game over a specified period of time. “We spent years writing software that does all the hard stuff.”

And while the more offbeat bets, made as a game is going with just seconds of prep, have wrinkles that need to be ironed, they still look like the future. 

Variety, sports bettors seem to be deciding, is the spice of the gambling life, and it can also be profitable for those who know where to look and when to wager. “It’s nice when there are a lot of offerings available, no matter the vig,” says Wishnev. “After all, the bookies can’t always get it right.” v

Gambling

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