Ask A Bookmaker With Johnny Avello: Tackling The Winter Olympics

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 them to jbalan@bettercollective.com. Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

From a bookmaking standpoint, how do you view the Winter Olympics, which officially begin Friday in Beijing?

Johnny Avello: The retail books, from my experience, will do very little business on this. There’s a couple reasons for that. When you look at the Summer Olympics, there’s really not a whole lot going on when the Olympics are going — some soccer, some baseball. Those summer sports seem to be a little more interesting to the bettor — basketball, track and field, baseball, soccer, tennis. With the Winter Olympics, you get things like alpine skiing, slalom skiing, downhill, and the time difference is another part of it.

It will do some business online because some people will know the space and play it, and some people will handicap the space. But it won’t be anywhere as big of a push as the Summer Olympics were.

How much of a hit will hockey take with the NHL players not participating?

JA: Hockey usually does well. The futures do OK, but the games usually do very well. They’ll still do OK, but without the pros in there, it will make a huge difference.

But from a national perspective online, are you guys just trying to put up as many offerings as you can as an entertainment product for customers?

JA: We’re going to put up quite a bit. We only have about six total events up right now, but the other day, we had a lot more. We just have them down, because we’re doing some adjusting. We’re going to have quite a bit of content, probably more than others.

Are there any concerns about the impact of COVID? Judging from press reports, it seems like everything is pretty tight, but there could be participants dropping out.

JA: I’m really not that concerned because look what we just went through with cancellations and players out in hockey, football, and basketball. The Olympics is far away [geographically], but I think we’ll get the news. We’re not going to get too crazy, anyway. First of all, the limits are going to be lower, and a lot of this is future-book stuff, so that comes down when the event starts. We can make some adjustments along the way, but for the most part, there’s not a lot of concerns.

What would you say will be the most popular sport to bet at the Winter Olympics?

JA: It’s going to be hockey because people are familiar with hockey. The Russians, Finland, the Canadians — they’re all pretty good hockey teams. The write on the future book will be pretty good, and the write on the individual games will be pretty good. I mean, who knows a lot about downhill skiing? Hockey is probably going to tower over everything else.

What about women’s figure skating? I believe that usually gets the best TV ratings, but does that cross over to betting handle? Has there ever been significant betting on those events?

JA: There sure was when I put up Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding about 30 years ago. I remember that well. That was probably the most money we’ve ever written on skating. I couldn’t tell you what the splits were, but you remember the story. I know Kerrigan did get play. She was the favorite, and there were reasons for that. There was the motivation factor and those things are judged, so you never know what’s going on in the judges’ minds, but she was the favorite. Skating is still popular now, but it’s not as popular for wagering.

That must have been pretty interesting to watch, to see people coming up to the window to bet figure skating.

JA: It was pretty heavily watched, too, when we could show it in the sportsbook. It was a major event at the time.

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