Twenty-eight quarterbacks have better odds than Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen to lead the NFL in passing yards this season, including rookie Kyler Murray, Sam Darnold and both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen, who are in competition for the starting job with the Miami Dolphins, widely projected as the worst team in the league.
Allen has the worst odds to produce the highest passer rating, and the second-best odds to lead the NFL in interceptions.
These “prop bets” are according to BetOnline.ag, an offshore gambling website based in Panama, which is to say they’re according to Adam Burns, the sportsbook’s manager, a Montreal native and onetime Bills fan.
“Now my team is basically whoever I bet on that day,” Burns said. “I have 32 different favorite teams, you know what I mean? It just depends on the line and the game. When you work in this industry, you don’t have favorite teams anymore. Your allegiance is to where your money goes.”
Prop bets — wagers on events or nonevents that don’t necessarily affect the outcome of a game — are a rapidly growing segment of the rapidly growing sports gambling industry. And companies are competing to meet the demand, offering an ever-expanding menu of available wagers, ranging from those big-picture, seasonlong bets on individual players such as the Bills’ second-year QB, to granular options offered in-game, including whether a given drive ends in a touchdown or interception.
“There are so many variations and so many different markets that we offer,” said John Sheeran, the director of risk and trading at FanDuel, which operates one of the few legal sportsbooks in New York. “And potentially even more as we look to expand what we do from a player perspective in all the core sports, and definitely within the NFL.”
The odds for most prop bets are generally based on hard data, which is analyzed and used to generate probabilities, and are also affected by public perception. Like traditional sports wagering on point spreads or over/unders, the incoming money on a given prop can cause a line to move up and down, with the oddsmaker’s goal to take even money on both sides, thereby minimizing risk while ensuring profit through the “vig” or “juice,” a built-in fee for facilitating the wager. But props aren’t an exact science.
“These numbers that we post for player props and stuff like that, they’re not as strong as the point spreads and the money lines and the totals that we post for games,” said Pat Morrow, a Toronto native, former Bills fan and the head oddsmaker at Bovada.lv, which is based in Canada. “They’re a lot softer. As a result of that, you’ll also see us move these lines a little bit more. So even if we come to what we think is a good number for how many receiving yards a player should have in a year or something, we still do concede that we’re not quite experts at it, and we’re much more likely to move on what we consider to be sharp action on props like these.”
As it stands, Allen has a much higher opinion of his abilities than the gambling public.
Informed of one less-than-flattering prop, he smiled and suggested he’s being underestimated.
“Bet the over!” Allen said.
A growing industry
Burns was a high school math teacher for five years before breaking into the sports gambling business.
“It was pure chance,” Burns said. “I was literally at a bar, and all the teachers used to play hockey every Thursday, so after the game we’d go to the bar and one of the teachers from another school was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a connection in this business. The summer’s coming. Why don’t you go try it out? You know gambling. You know sports. You know math. And if you don’t like it, because you’re off in the summer, then go back to teaching.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ "
Burns climbed the ranks for 15 years, beginning as a junior oddsmaker before working his way to the role of sportsbook manager for BetOnline, rated among the top online sportsbooks by sportsbookreview.com.
The sportsbook also has developed a reputation for offering some of the more “exotic” prop bets. These are typically lower-stakes offerings, designed to grab headlines and build audience. Among them are the WWE, "Game of Thrones" and politics, including how many times President Trump tweeted during the Democratic primary debates. The over/under was 1.5 for Trump tweets during the first night of the first debate. He tweeted twice.
“Prop bets are interesting because it’s not like a game line where you’re betting on the Bears-Packers Week 1 of NFL,” Burns said. “Those lines are going to be the same on every site in Vegas and in the new legislative books in the U.S.
"But the prop bets get more interesting, because there’s less of a market for it. We have stuff up that no one else has sometimes, so we sort of create the market.”
Prop bets account for roughly 5% of wagers industrywide, according to the three bookmakers interviewed for this story. But that equates to “quite a significant amount of money every week,” Sheeran said.
And Morrow, who’s been in the business for 11 years, said he’s seen that segment of the industry grow from half a percentage point over the last decade.
“It’s something that in recent years, with daily fantasy and fantasy football in general, this idea of trying to project individual player performance more so than team performance has certainly made this kind of wagering much more popular,” Morrow said, “whether it’s projecting seasonlong player performance or individual-game player performance. So with that kind of focus on it, it’s become a large part of the business.”
Those percentages spike for the Super Bowl, when prop bets account for roughly one-third of all wagers at BetOnline and half of those at Bovada, according to the oddsmakers, who said their websites experience a surge of new signups as money pours in on everything from the coin toss to the length of the national anthem.
Many of these types of prop bets are barred at the legal sportsbooks in New York.
FanDuel operates the legal sportsbooks at the Meadowlands in New Jersey and at Tioga Downs in Nichols, just outside Binghamton, the second legal sportsbook to open in New York, where online sports gambling remains outlawed and all bets must be placed in person.
The company offers an estimated 250 “markets,” or potential wagers, per NFL game, Sheeran said. But the offerings here are limited by the New York State Gaming Commission.
“Everything that we offer has to be approved by the regulator in the relative state that we want to do it in,” Sheeran said, “so if I wanted to do a prop on Aaron Rodgers, I would have to seek approval for that in each of the states that we operate, which is New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Each of those four may have a different perspective on whether or not I’m able to do it.
“It is quite a laborious and cumbersome task, but unfortunately that’s the process and that’s what we have to follow. It isn’t regulated that tightly in Europe. We’re able to do these things pretty much at our own discretion. It is a regulated industry, but we have a lot more freedom to be able to do whatever we want, and I guess that comes just from the amount of time and how mature the business is. It’s obviously brand new here … and we understand that the regulators need to get comfortable with this and it will take time for some of these things to change. ...
“For example, in New York, I’m not able to offer ‘How many missed field goals will there be in the Buffalo game?’ I can do that very easily in New Jersey. The idea is that it’s a negative play by one individual and could be something that could conceivably be preplanned, for example.
“An interception is another one from a quarterback. They won’t allow us to do that in New York. We can do those in New Jersey. Anything contained within the game and the boxscore – that can be created off the boxscore – is OK in New Jersey. But there’s a very different set of rules in New York.”
Gamblers placing wagers at the legal sportsbooks in New York, for example, will not be able to bet on Josh Allen’s interception total in a given game.
“It’s highly likely I’ll be offering that in every Buffalo game in New Jersey,” Sheeran said, “but not in New York.”
Setting the lines
How does BetOnline – or any sportsbook, for that matter – determine that Allen should have 150/1 odds to lead the league in passing yards?
Why does LeSean McCoy have 100/1 odds to lead the league in rushing yards?
And how about John Brown and Zay Jones, tied for the second-longest odds (150/1) among players listed to lead the league in receiving touchdowns?
Why not 125/1? Or 175/1?
While there’s a greater margin for error in those types of seasonlong offerings, the process for determining those odds is akin to how sportsbooks approach weekly player props.
“The player props are pretty much all derived from statistical analysis of previous performances,” Sheeran said, “and then it’s pretty much a matter of pairing up what we would call the ‘factual data,’ which is all the numbers and stats that go into any element of the game, and then some of the more subjective viewpoints that our expert traders would have and would apply to that. So things like weather, matchups, what the teams have done against each other, if the coaches have got a good record against each other, have they done a good job of slowing down Peyton Manning or have they not done a good job of that?
“And the traders will then apply their expert opinions and nudge the odds that are spit out or the numbers that are spit out. And what we ultimately try and do is find the true probability of how many yards we expect Drew Brees to throw for in the Saints’ game on opening weekend, and effectively what we’re trying to do is find out how many times in 100 any individual outcome happens.
“So if you pick 300 yards for Drew Brees in Week 1, what is the true probability, the true percentage times that he will throw over 300 yards? And effectively once we have defined how many times that happens, we just add our margin or our vig, which basically allows us to make money. Because if we offered the true probability about anything happening, we don’t expect to make any money. And obviously, it’s a business at the end of the day and we need to generate profits to survive.”
Bills to finish 7-9?
The major sportsbooks have projected the Bills to win seven games this season, which is reflected by the over/under total.
FanDuel set the Bills’ season total at 6.5 wins, with the odds favoring the over. The same goes for Bovada. BetOnline also had the Bills at 6.5 wins when its line debuted in April, but with much of the money in the last four months coming in on the over, the line crept up to 7 and then to 7.5 wins in an effort to entice more wagers on the under, Burns said.
DraftKings, which will operate the sportsbook slated to open at Del Lago Resort & Casino in Waterloo, takes a different approach to the Bills, offering odds at 6.5, 7.5 and 8.5 wins. But their calculations are largely in line with the rest, with Buffalo favored to win more than six games but fewer than eight.
“For win totals, I’ll give a percentage to each game of what the projected spread would be,” Burns said. “I calculate it to see what the number would be. Now, there’s always trades, injuries, the draft, stuff like that. That’s going to change that over time. And then once the preseason comes, someone gets hurt or something, the lines can drastically change. If Tom Brady gets hurt in a preseason game, the Patriots are going down in their win total, and he’s coming down from MVP and all that sort of stuff.
“So we’re looking at all that. And we’ll also look at social media a lot, because in this day and age, it’s not like when I started and social media was pretty small. There’s so many people that give picks, they say what they think, they tout stuff. So we’ve got to follow that, because what happens is a lot of people will just follow what – if some guy says, ‘Hey, the best bet of the year is the Browns under nine wins,’ or something like that, then people are going to bet it blindly. So we have to be careful of that.”
The money coming in can also move the line, as is the case with the Bills’ win total at BetOnline.
“But at the same time, it’s not how much money comes in, it’s who bet it,” Burns said. “So we profile players. If we have a guy who’s up, like hitting 60% of his bets over a couple of years, we’re more likely to shade the line towards his bet than some guy who’s down a ton of money.”
“A wise guy betting $100 is much more likely to have us move that line than some average Joe betting a couple grand on it,” he said. “The source of the information is much more valuable than the money coming in itself.”
It’s particularly common for the lines on player props to move, especially early in the season.
“If you look at player props, you’ll notice how they move from when we set the lines right up until kickoff,” Sheeran said, “and the best idea that we have of what the true probability is what the line closes at. You’ll see them in Week 1 when we go up with them and then compare them to kickoff, or right before kickoff, and you’ll see how far some of them can move … particularly in the early parts of the season where it’s more difficult for us to understand what the play-calling looks like and an awful lot of the decisions you’re making is based on previous performance without any kind of updated perspective, whether it’s coaching changes, personnel changes, new schemes.
“It’s obviously very difficult for us. And we find and tend to see that we struggled to make money in the first few weeks until that all beds itself down, and then we get a good feel for what’s happening on a game-by-game basis.”
Allen’s performance, like that of any player, will dictate the odds he receives throughout the season.
It’ll impact the fortunes of the Bills on the field, and of those putting their money where their mouth is off it.
News sports writer Vic Carucci contributed to this report.
Sampling of Bills-related player props
(courtesy of BetOnline.ag)
Most passing yards, 150/1
Most passing TDs, 150/1
Most INTs thrown, 12/1
Highest passer rating, 250/1
Most rushing TDs, 16/1
Most yards from scrimmage, 50/1
Most total TDs, 80/1
Most rushing yards, 100/1
Most rushing TDs, 66/1
Most rushing yards, 200/1
Most rushing TDs, 66/1
Most receiving yards, 150/1
Most receiving TDs, 150/1
Most receiving TDs, 150/1
Most tackles, 12/1
Most INTs, 16/1
To win AP coach of the year, 33/1