Sportsbooks don’t like to lose money. But in the highly competitive landscape of the current sports gambling industry, as they fight to get back on their feet after the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the spring sports season, they’d much rather lose money — at least in the short term — than lose customers.
After a summer of uncertainty, yes, there will be professional football, as the NFL kicks off its 2020 season Thursday night. Fantasy players stalled their drafts until the last minute, bettors back-burnered their research until the end of a nonexistent preseason, but there’s no more uncertainty about it: Football will be played.
Will teams play 16 games? Will COVID outbreaks emerge? Will more players opt out?
Well, we didn’t say all uncertainty was gone.
Now begins a different season of uncertainty, and as handicapper and former Las Vegas sportsbook manager Raphael Esparza explained to US Bets, that could hold some advantages for bettors.
“I’ve talked to multiple books in the States, here in Vegas, offshore — and I can say that in 2020, it’s all about customer service,” said Esparza, who has helmed sportsbooks at MGM Grand, Caesars Palace, New York New York, and Aria. “If teams miss games because of COVID and you have a problem with a futures bet and you talk to the sportsbook about it, I can almost guarantee you they’re going to refund you your money. The sportsbooks can’t afford to lose a customer because there are so many other places they can go, and you don’t want any negative publicity in a pandemic year. I talked to my buddies at the sportsbooks where I used to work, and they said everything is all about pleasing the customers to keep them there.”
Free money alert
At many of the legal online sportsbooks operating from state to state, that effort to please the estimated 33 million customers who will be be betting on the NFL this season comes in the form of promotions.
Some are likely to boost bankrolls.
Others are guaranteed to boost bankrolls.
DraftKings Sportsbook is literally giving money away, whether you’re an existing customer or a new depositor, with a promo for Thursday night’s Kansas City-Houston season opener. They’re calling it the “No-Brainer Bet,” as customers can bet up to $50 at standard -110 odds on the Chiefs to cover as 101-point underdogs (without the promo, they’re 9-point favorites). No NFL team has ever beaten another NFL team by 102 points or more. As long as you have $50 in your account to bet, DraftKings is handing you another $45.50.
Competitor FanDuel Sportsbook is more subtle in its effort to pad betting accounts, offering a “Road to 55 Bonus” for a wager on any team to win Super Bowl 55. If you bet at least $50, you get a $5 bonus (up to a max of $50) every time the team you bet on wins a regular season game. So if, for example, you bet on the defending champion Chiefs at the shortest odds on the board, +600, you can win $300 if Andy Reid’s team captures another Lombardi, but you’ll also get your $50 back as long as Kansas City wins 10 or more regular season games. Take a longer shot like, say, the Packers at +3100, and you can win $1,550 if they go all the way while still getting back $40 of your $50 investment if Green Bay muddles its way to a .500 season.
FOX Bet is probably giving money away with a promotion tied to Thursday’s kickoff game, provided quarterback Patrick Mahomes has a remotely Mahomes-ian performance. Bettors have to put $10 or more on the game (on any pre-game line with minimum odds of -200) and they’ll receive a $10 free bet for everything touchdown Mahomes scores with his leg or his arm. In 31 career regular season games, Mahomes has thrown for 76 TDs and run for four more. Based on that history, this bet has an expectation of 2.58 $10 free bets, along with the chance to win on your $10 wager.
PointsBet is also giving away free bets for touchdowns in the Chiefs-Texans game. Customers have to bet $25 or more on the spread (Chiefs -9 as of Wednesday morning) and they’ll get a $6 free bet for each touchdown scored by the team they back. It’s much less of a guaranteed profit than some of the other sportsbooks’ promotions, but it still turns either side of the bet into a plus-EV play.
Meanwhile, BetRivers has about as straightforward an offer as you’ll find on Chiefs-Texans: Make any pre-game bet on the moneyline, spread, or total between $25 and $100, and you receive a matching free bet regardless of whether your bet wins. So if you bet $60 on the over, a $60 free bet will appear in your account the next day no matter what happens in the game.
Coming home to an empty house
For those looking to beat the books without the benefit of freebies and promos — or those who bet so big that a $50 bonus barely covers what they tip the bellhop when they check into their penthouse suite — gambling on the NFL in 2020 will be full of unique challenges.
Chief among them is what the heck to do with home field “advantage.” Traditionally, the spread is said to move three points toward the home team. As ESPN’s Doug Kezirian notes, however, bookmakers have been adjusting that downward in recent years, and during the 2019 season home teams were favored by an average of just 1.76 points.
With most teams expected to play most games this season in stadiums without fans, one would think home field advantage would be further diminished, and that the only advantages to playing at home are you’re sleeping in your own bed instead of a hotel and you don’t have to travel early in the week.
Look at the NBA and NHL bubbles, where being dubbed the “home team” at a neutral site has been all but meaningless. In the Celtics-Raptors series, through five games, the “road” team is 5-0.
Nevertheless, early indications are that the books are giving the standard three points or so in Week 1. Using FanDuel’s odds, for example, Detroit is favored by 3 over Chicago at home despite the fact that the Bears’ win total prop is 8 and the Lions’ is 7; Minnesota is favored by 2½ points at home over Green Bay despite having a slightly lower season win total expectation; and New Orleans is giving 3½ at home against Tampa Bay, the team that has drawn the most offseason buzz and futures bets. Look around the league, and it sure seems books are still baking in 2-3 points for the home team.
“I think the bettors will adjust the lines,” said Esparza. “Money is always going to adjust where you move it. If you get off the 3, down to 2½, money is always going to play that. I think there are probably only a small handful of teams that you’re going to see a big difference with no fans in the stands. The Seattle Seahawks are on the road this week — I would have loved to have seen them if they were at home against the Falcons, because that’s such a loud stadium, every team that’s ever played there has said, for a defense, it’s hard to hear the defensive coordinator.
“Especially in the NFL where there’s so much money coming in and being bet, money’s going to dictate. Yes, books can put up an opening number — especially now in the NFL, we see opening numbers go up in the summer! So we have all these months to balance our books, the money will adjust whether it should be 3 points or not.”
Wild Card gone wilder
Another significant change in 2020 is the number of teams making the playoffs. Instead of the usual six per conference, the NFL has bumped it up to seven, meaning 43.75% of the league will now make the postseason.
Obviously, this changes the calculations on will/won’t-make-the-playoffs bets.
But here’s a subtler way it could impact futures betting strategy: With only one team per conference receiving a first-round bye, the push for the top seed will have added urgency. So there’s logic in betting the over on win totals for elite teams like the Chiefs (11.5 wins at FOX Bet), Ravens (11 wins), 49ers (10.5 wins), Saints (10.5 wins), and Cowboys (9.5 wins). Any of those could be motivated to go all out in their final game or two even if they have division titles wrapped up.
Esparza also says to watch for long-shot teams to reach or win the Super Bowl, given that two extra Wild Card teams will be in the mix.
“We could see a double-digit Super Bowl spread this year,” Esparza proposed. “We could see a team come into the Wild Card and get hot, like the Giants team that upset the Patriots.” In the 2008 Super Bowl, New England was favored by as many as 14 points over the NFC East runner-up Giants.
Season-long player props are another interesting area to examine heading into the season, with unders arguably being better value than ever. In a typical season, the potential for injury is always a concern if you’re betting overs, and in 2020, to hit overs a player needs to (a) perform to expectation, (b) avoid injuries, and (c) dodge COVID-19. We hate to say it, but with the NFL choosing not to attempt a “bubble” and allowing players to mix with civilians between games, positive tests are a near-certainty.
“I do think the unders are probably among the best bets over the course of the season,” Esparza said. “If you’re looking at, say, total touchdown passes for TB 12 [Tom Brady], you have to be very cautious about betting the over. What if a guy gets sick? Or what if the offensive line gets sick and he has three rookies protecting him?”
Super Bowl shuffle?
One thing Esparza isn’t betting against is the likelihood of there being a Super Bowl LV. As of now, the game is scheduled for Feb. 7, 2021, at Raymond James Stadium in Brady’s new hometown of Tampa.
As we’ve seen with Major League Baseball, COVID outbreaks can shake up a schedule. But the NFL is ready to adjust as needed.
“I had multiple sources tell me,” Esparza shared, “that the NFL blocked off the whole month of February and the first week of March, so that just in case they have a hiccup, we can still see a Super Bowl.”
The road to that possibly delayed Super Bowl begins this week.
As with all things 2020, the future is monumentally uncertain. But we know the NFL, with all the money that’s at stake, is the least likely American sports league to punt on fourth and long. For now, it’s first and 10, and if you bet the “yes” on the season starting on time, that ticket is just hours away from cashing.
Photo by Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today Sports