Welcome to our weekly “Ask a Bookmaker” feature, which answers many of the common (and uncommon!) questions gamblers and enthusiasts have about how sportsbooks operate in the modern age of sports betting.
Respected bookmaker Johnny Avello has been involved in the betting industry since the 1970s and previously managed the Las Vegas sportsbooks at Bally’s and the Wynn. Now the director of race and sportsbook operations for DraftKings, Avello was recently inducted into the Sports Betting Hall of Fame.
Have a question you’d like to ask Avello? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
The minutes after each NCAA Tournament matchup gets announced seem like they would be pretty hectic for a sportsbook operator. Can you walk us through what that is like?
Johnny Avello: We had a great time putting up those first numbers. As the matchups came across we put them up and had them all up between 8-10 minutes after each region was announced. We had a guy betting $50,000 a game and another guy betting $100,000. The money is still coming in and every day will get madder and madder, as they call it.
We’re prepared, all the college basketball traders have their ratings ready to go, and then as the announcements are made, everybody gets to work, makes a number quickly, we compare numbers, then put up the consensus of them all or something close to that. The toughest part of that is getting the matchups off the TV and doing oddsmaking at the same time. That’s the difficult part of it. But we did a good job, the team worked really hard, and we got them up in a sufficient amount of time. Bettors were very happy to be able to bet the first numbers.
Is it hectic? Stressful? How would you describe it?
JA: It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a little stressful, because we’re under the gun to get these things up quickly, but we handled it well.
I think everyone understands the main factors — the power rankings, the locations of the games, certain matchups — but are there any lesser-known factors that play into setting a line for the tournament?
JA: Injuries are important, and teams that maybe didn’t win their conference tournaments, they might have a little extra motivation. Some teams that we don’t normally book — like South Dakota State and Longwood — there are small conversations around some of those teams. And although we may not be familiar with all their games, we know the teams. We know how they play, we know their style, and we have a pretty good rating on them. It’s not too difficult, to be honest.
What do you do to prepare beforehand?
JA: I’ve got a list that I start, with all the teams I think are going to make the tournament, then watch very carefully every day — who won the conference tournaments and who didn’t and are likely out. Some of these conferences, even if you win 25 games, a lot of times you’re just not going to make it. We know the Alabamas, Arizonas, Arkansas, Connecticuts — but is Wyoming in? Is Virginia Tech? That type of thing.
Were there any surprises this year, from your perspective?
JA: I don’t think so. I don’t think anybody was left out that should have gotten in. Princeton was a huge surprise not winning the Ivy League Tournament. Belmont didn’t win their conference tournament. Xavier was one on the fence that could have gotten in. Oklahoma probably needed one more win. St. Bonaventure was another one, and Colorado. There were quite a few on the fence.
Any surprises or insights from the first couple days of betting?
JA: Some of the games moved a little, but when you put the games up first, you would expect two- or three-point movements, and we don’t. A lot of our lines are still the same — a half-point here, a half-point there.
One game that did run early was Colorado State-Michigan. Now, Michigan only has 17 wins, but they got in based on strength of schedule. We opened up Colorado State pick ’em. We did go as high as Michigan -2.5, but that game is now -2.
Gonzaga-Georgia State was interesting. We opened at -26.5, then took a big bet laying the 26.5, so we were as high as 27.5, but the game started coming down, because there were people that liked the other side. Even though we moved three points in the game, we’re in good shape.
UCLA moved a little bit against Akron. UCLA opened up at -15.5 and is now -13.5. You try to find live dogs in this thing, and that’s one players like a little bit. They also like Colgate initially against Wisconsin — we opened at -9 and now we’re at -7.5.
They initially liked Loyola-Chicago against Ohio State. We opened with Loyola -1.5, then went to -2, but now we’re down to pick. The ol’ Sister Jean deal. When this team made that run a few years ago, the public was all over them. It’s a public team, but right now the choice is Ohio State.
Villanova-Delaware is an interesting game. We opened Villanova -17, and we’re down to -15.5, but the total went from 129.5 to 133.5. Delaware is not a very good defensive team, so that’s why they’re betting the total over, but if you’re betting the total over, why are you betting the underdog with the spread? It’s an interesting scenario there.
Any particularly trendy upset picks apparent in the first couple days?
JA: They like this South Dakota State team. We took some money early on them. That’s a team the public is going to bet against Providence. The team had a lot of wins this year, 27, but it’s a really short line at -2. Bettors would like to get a higher number, but that’s not the way the matchup was set up. Both teams’ power ratings are fairly close.
I don’t see any No. 1s losing this year, but they’ll look at teams that are 7- or 8-point underdogs — Colgate, Iowa State against LSU, Chattanooga against Illinois.
The futures markets seem more multi-factorial after the brackets are revealed, with different paths for different teams. How does that get tweaked around this time?
JA: It gets bet pretty good at this time. We know who the 68 teams are, so now you’re not guessing who is in and who is not. When we put these up, we’ll have pretty heavy betting on some teams and pretty light on others, so we’ll raise some teams up to try to attract action, and you can find some decent value on teams. Once you get past the top 15 teams or so, you’re getting to 50/1 and up, so there’s value out there. We’ll keep the future book up until the end of the tournament, so there’s a lot of money still to go in that pot.
But if one regional is more difficult than another, does that shade things for the top teams in that bracket?
JA: If you look at a team like Kansas, they probably have the easiest road to get there, so they’re +160 to win that region. We’ll adjust it as it goes, but we think the first game is a given, so that won’t adjust the number too much.
How much did Tom Brady’s announcement that he was coming out of retirement complicate things, since he did it right in the middle of the brackets being released?
JA: That happened during all this, but we made the adjustment in the NFL futures market quick. We were seeing money trickle in, though, on Tampa during the week. People were betting it before, so people maybe had a notion he was coming back. We have some jeopardy on them, but I’m not too concerned about it, to be honest with you, because I don’t think Brady is going to win any more Super Bowls. That’s my opinion. He has a good team, he’s a good quarterback, and he’ll come in prepared, but other teams are getting better, and maybe there is a time to hang the spikes up.
But the bettors who played Tampa last week did get good value. Let’s face it. If you’re getting 40/1 with Tom Brady, you’re getting pretty good value. We certainly got a little bit of exposure right now, but we have them +850 now, so whoever got the bigger number got great value.
Before we go, anything else you want to add about the basketball tournament?
JA: This tournament is now back to its normal format — we’re back to the usual process in which these games are played. We’re back to the normal way of doing things, and I think this is a bust-out year for this tournament. I live in Las Vegas, and I know the Vegas properties will all do well and will be packed. This should be their biggest tournament ever, and I know this will be our biggest tournament ever. I can go on record and say this will probably be the biggest [betting] event of all-time, combined over the three weeks.