From Sports Betting Desert To Sports Betting Orgy, All In The Space Of A Few Months

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The sports world has come a long way since a certain Penn Bets staffer was reduced to watching and writing about Belarusian soccer in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The range of sports wagering possibilities for a Pennsylvanian became starkly clear Friday, when realizing the Phillies, Pirates, Penguins, Flyers, and 76ers were scheduled for a three-day smorgasbord of weekend action.

The contrast from four months ago was like if Tom Hanks’ desert-stranded character in Cast Away had been picked up in the ocean not by a freighter, but by a cruise ship that let him run wild in the buffet.

So yeah, I succumbed. Seeing 11 potential games on the schedule for Pennsylvania teams from Friday to Sunday, this writer decided to dedicate much of the weekend to evaluating the local game lines and attached promotions from all nine of the state’s legal online betting sites.

Armed with that information, I intended to then make small bets ($5 to $10, since there’s no company expense account for such things) on each contest, albeit stupid “homer” bets, going only with the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh teams. But they’d be smart stupid homer bets, by at least getting the best odds. But they’d also be dumb smart stupid homer bets, by getting sucked into the so-called “boosts” relating to the Pennsylvania teams.

And maybe the outcome would be educational for other recreational bettors. You decide, based on the following:

Everyone’s hopeful at the start

Friday’s first contest had the Penguins, already down 2-1 in a best-of-five qualifying series against the Montreal Canadiens, fighting for their playoff lives. Seven of nine sites still had the Pens in game four at -175, heavily favored as they had been at the start of the series.

The better of the two exceptions was Caesars, carrying a -165 price. That became a $10 bet on Pittsburgh to at least make it to game five, for pride if nothing else.

FanDuel, meanwhile, offered an “NHL Super Boost,” making it +280 for Sidney Crosby to score and the Pens to win. The site said the normal price for that should have been +215. I had no way of knowing, comparing, computing any of that. I’d made a commitment to take part in such offers, though. So there went another $5 investment of the poor man’s gambling budget.

The 76ers, meanwhile, were 5-point favorites vs. the Orlando Magic on every site. The vig differed, though, going as high as -114 on FanDuel. FOX Bet was the best, an even-money +100. It received a $10 wager.

But then FanDuel had another boost: to +450 (from +360) for Joel Embiid to score the game’s first basket. It got $5. So did a FOX Bet boost, to +350 from a supposed +300 for the 76ers to win and Shake Milton to score over 17.5 points. And yet another $5 went to a “BetRivers Special”: Sixers to win, plus Embiid to garner at least 30 points and 15 rebounds, at +500.

The Pirates were opening a home series against the Detroit Tigers, a matchup of two teams supposed to be among the worst in baseball, and seven sites had the Pirates -105. Included among those are five sites all using Kambi odds and thus almost always identical to one another: DraftKings, Unibet, Parx, and two co-owned and duplicative sites, BetRivers and PlaySugarhouse.

But Caesars was willing to make the Bucs just -102, and it thus received $10 in action.

Give Caesars credit also for offering the best line on the Phillies vs. the Braves at +100, when everyone else set a minus price, going as high as -110 at BetAmerica. So that was $10 more to Caesars.

Gee, this is harder than it looks

Ohhh, so this is why it’s not smart to be a homer or jump at every odds boost.

The favored Penguins listlessly lost, 2-0, which meant both Pens bets lost. The weekend started down a quick $15.

The Sixers covered the point spread by two points in a 108-101 victory, but none of the three “boosted” and “special” prop bets won. That made for a net $5 loss on the NBA.

And the Pirates lost 17-13 in 11 innings, for another $10 loss.

The Phils were rained out, with a betting refund, and considering the day’s other outcomes, we’d have to call that a major victory.

Friday’s outcome:

  • One winning bet: $10
  • Five losing bets: -$40
  • Result: -$30

A day to target a rebound and chase losses

The Pens’ early exit from their series meant the weekend would have at least one fewer game involving a Pennsylvania team, as they would have played a game five on Saturday. Maybe that’s for the best for the old wallet, as that reduced the risk to just three games involving the Pirates, Phils, and Flyers.

Something in the morning shifted the Pirates to bigger favorites against the Tigers than they started out. Kambi-backed sites moved them from -122 to -134. Caesars went only from -122 to -127, and it received a $10 bet.

Having learned nothing from Friday’s odds boost debacle, we also invested $5 in a FOX Bet boost of the Pirates to win and Bryan Reynolds to score a run, at +210.

The Phillies were +100 on Caesars while everyone else had them -102 to -105, so Caesars again got $10 of our money to hold onto for at least a few hours.

The Flyers had a later starting time against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and they were an underdog, initially anywhere from +112 to +120. A second check of FanDuel’s site at mid-day showed a shift to +125, and that’s where $10 went.

Parx, meanwhile, offered a combination of the Flyers scoring at least three goals and Claude Giroux scoring at least one of them. Like sheep, we took it for $5.

Take that, sportsbooks!

The truly dreadful Pirates lost, 11-5. Did Reynolds score one of the five runs? I don’t know — we gave up caring, as it became a moot point with their loss. Two more losing bets had already been decided to start the day.

The Phillies, bless their hearts, shut out the Braves, 5-0. Things were looking brighter.

And then the Flyers won, 4-1. It was not only a moneyline victory but they scored the three-plus goals and Giroux … Giroux … well, we scanned the box score 26 times and couldn’t find any indication on any of those that he put a puck in the net. So we won the main bet and lost the prop bet.

Saturday’s result:

  • Two wins: +22.50
  • Three losses: -20
  • Result: +2.50 (whoo-whoo!)

One last try

Sunday featured a Sixers night game against the Portland Trail Blazers, and baseball games involving the Pirates and the Phillies in a doubleheader to make up for Friday’s rainout.

This time, boosts tied specifically to the Pennsylvania contests weren’t being offered, and we can’t say we were sorry.

The Pirates started the day as slight underdogs, and multiple checks of the sites showed them becoming bigger underdogs as the morning progressed. A whale betting $1,000 on the game would probably want to know why before placing any wager on them. With our $10, we blindly threw down on them at +128 from (yet again) Caesars.

Doing our wagering in the morning, only the first game of the Phils’ doubleheader was available. We found what we considered a big edge: FOX Bet had them at +125 at 11 a.m. at the same time that Caesars listed -105. Again, we didn’t know what explained the difference. We just if knew we were betting Philadelphia, we wanted our $10 on the +125.

The lines on the Sixers, meanwhile, were intriguing. Seven sites had them as an underdog, +3, with the vig ranging from -108 to -110. But FanDuel had them +3.5 at -114, and Caesars a still better +3.5 at -110. A $10 wager was placed with the latter.

Yeah, just keep betting those Pirates, fool

In what would surprise a Tigers fan as much as anyone else, Detroit swept the Pirates. The 2-1 game was one more $10 homer loss for us.

When the Phils lost their doubleheader opener to the Braves, 5-2, it negated the value of having that +125 instead of -105 price. Either way, it was another $10 down the drain.

That left it to the Sixers to point out the value of this whole sorry (in a financial sense, at least) exercise. They lost to Portland, but we don’t care about that — how much did they lose by? The final score was 124-121, and shopping around to get them as a 3.5-point underdog instead of 3-point ‘dog proved a big difference.

  • One win: +9.09
  • Two losses: -$20
  • Result: -$10.91.

All right, class, what did we learn?

OK, the point of this little exercise wasn’t to show how easy it is for even a small-time bettor to lose $38.41 in the present sporting environment, though one can take it as a cautionary tale if one likes.

There are a few things gleaned from this admittedly small sample size:

  1. It’s never recommended to bet blindly as a homer, at least if one cares about the money involved. Would we have done better studying the teams, because we might have occasionally bet against those from Philadelphia or (particularly) Pittsburgh and come out ahead? Perhaps.
  2. There are some promos worth pursuing and some to simply be shunned. Certain worthwhile ones show up that are too good to pass up because the sites are virtually willing to give money away as a marketing tool to attract customers. But all of these “odds boosts” in which the average bettor has little way to gauge their true value? Best to be wary, or at least studious.
  3. The relatively new Caesars sportsbook in Pennsylvania gets nowhere near the attention of industry giants like FanDuel and DraftKings, but it’s well worth a look from serious bettors. It doesn’t offer the same level of promotions as other sites, but its lines are frequently the best (and maybe those two facets are related).
  4. For anyone taking this seriously — many of whom, believe it or not, risk more than the $5 or $10 chump change per game in this exercise — it pays to check the lines on all the sites. Sunday night, it was the difference between simply getting the money back in a push on the 76ers’ three-point loss vs. walking away with a profit by using one of two sites offering them at 3.5.

We found that no one site always has the best odds — it’s different with every game. And the differences may not be large — we made just a few cents more by getting the Phils at +100 Saturday instead of -102 or -104 elsewhere—- but in the long run, they add up.

As we all know, every little bit helps in fighting the bookermakers’ vig. That’s whether you’re betting the NBA, NHL, MLB, or even Belarusian soccer.

Photo by Jim Barber / Shutterstock.com

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at [email protected].

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