Ask A Bookmaker With Johnny Avello: Pickleball Passion And ‘Ancillary’ Games

DraftKings' Hall-of-Fame bookmaker answers questions about the sports betting industry
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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 it to jbalan@bettercollective.com. Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

I understand you’re a pickleball player, and you’re working toward offering wagering on the pro events. Is that right?

Johnny Avello: I do play some. I haven’t played much as of late, but I’m looking to get back into it. It’s a very popular game, and it’s popular among the younger generation, too. At first, it was a slower version of tennis, with some ping-pong in it, but now the younger generation has found out there’s a pro tour and there’s money in it. There’s a park here in Vegas, where they just built 24 new courts, and it’s filled all the time, mostly with the younger generation. It’s for young and old, both.

We’re working on offering it for betting. We’re getting permissions from different states, and I’ve talked to some of the people who run the U.S. Open for pickleball. We’re going to be in the game here shortly.

For a lot of these sports, I don’t really know how to classify them. I initially thought of “oddball,” but…

JA: “Ancillary” is a good word for them.

That works for me. So, when I run down your betting menu, I see things like darts, handball, snooker, cricket, rugby, and Aussie rules — and those all have an international following. Are those appeals to people who come from those places and want to make a wager in the U.S.?

JA: The American people are getting to know rugby, because it’s become a little popular here, but for darts and table tennis, those, for the most part, take place in Europe. Some of these sports are taking a little while for the general public to embrace them, but they do take action. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t offer them.

For these niche offerings, how do you educate yourselves on the details, stats, and analytics of these sports, to get these lines as tight as they would be anywhere else in the world?

JA: It’s all available to us, but we also have different avenues for information we need to make a number. For the general public, it’s all there. If you want to look up table tennis and darts, you can find all that information on who the best players are, how they’ve done recently, and what’s coming up. You can find that information, and it’s out there for everyone.

For us, we need to have a little bit more depth of information, so we can make lines, like you said, a little bit tighter. Some of the stuff we’ve done for a while, like rugby, our team has a pretty good handle on that. Some of the European guys have been doing that for a while. But for some of the newer stuff, like cornhole, which we started doing last year, we get better at it as we continue to know the game better.

What are those extra avenues for information you have or need?

JA: To be in tune with the leagues themselves. We try to talk to the league first — that we’re going to try to take bets — and then try to get some information from them. That helps us a lot, if we can achieve that.

With cornhole, for instance, we spoke to the leagues about doing it, and they were excited about it, because it gives them exposure that they may have not had before. Therefore, they’re going to have more viewership. And, if you notice, cornhole is on major networks now.

So we tell them we’re going to start booking cornhole, can you share information with us on the players? Some of that stuff is out there for others, but some of it may not be. We try to go more in depth in the conversations.

How profitable are these markets? Is it different for different sports?

JA: They’re growing. That’s the important part. Our handle on cornhole is probably four times what it was last year, so it’s growing, and that’s the way it is for each of these sports, although table tennis jumped off the page early, because it was the only thing going at the time.

Some of this we’ve been doing for a while. When we bought SBTech, that came with the territory. They’ve had European players who bet snooker, who bet darts. Now that we’re offering that in the U.S., you just try to add to that overall handle between Europe and the U.S.

But when you look at handle for those sports, don’t ever try to compare that to the major stuff we do in the U.S. It just doesn’t compare. But when you look at all of it together, it’s quite a bit of handle on the ancillary games.

Is there anything with these markets that stands out as different than what you do with mainstream U.S. sports?

JA: It’s really not that different than everything else we do. We’re just so familiar with the other sports. It’s second nature.

Oddsmakers can make odds on anything, just with a little bit of data. Give us the data, and we’ll put up the numbers. Will they be strong initially? Probably not, but they’ll get better as we continue to do it.

And these are low-limit offerings, right? You’re not taking $10,000 bets on handball, are you?

JA: No, but that wouldn’t be unusual. We could have VIPs that want to bet more, and depending on who that VIP is, it’s possible to take that size bet, maybe on a final, semifinal, or a big match.

Other than pickleball, are there any other events you are interested in offering in the near future?

JA: Chess was something else we’re looking at. That’s something we’re diving into and hope to offer that soon, too. It’s been a very popular sport ever since The Queen’s Gambit came out. There’s a lot of people who follow chess, play chess, and chess sets were actually pretty difficult to get for a little bit.

There will be more. Some things we haven’t even thought of yet, but if there’s a market for it, we’ll be doing it.

Art by Blundell Design

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