Home Sports Diving into the great gambling unknowns of the 2020 NFL season

Diving into the great gambling unknowns of the 2020 NFL season

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As a historic NFL season kicks off Thursday, there is still so much that bettors and bookmakers don’t know. How will home-field advantage be impacted without fans in the stadium? How will teams be affected by not playing any preseason games (or intersquad scrimmages)? How will COVID-19 impact the season?

Bettors and bookmakers alike have had to prep for an NFL season unlike any other, including less public information without any preseason games, and a plethora of other betting options not normally available this time of year.

“It’s been like March in August,” Chuck Esposito, sportsbook director at Stations Casinos, said.

“I’ve spent more time reading through the house rules in the last month than I have the previous decade,” Dave Sharapan, a longtime Las Vegas oddsmaker, joked.

We asked bookmakers across the country what NFL home-field advantage was worth this season, how they were dealing with all of the uncertainty and more.

Home-field advantage

Ask five different bookmakers and you’ll get five different answers on how much home-field advantage is worth in the NFL and the impact of reduced (or zero) fans in stadiums.

For years, the general perception was that bookmakers gave home teams three points and adjusted based on the strength of the home-field advantage, travel and other factors. As others have noted, though, home-field advantage has been declining for years and most teams’ home stadiums aren’t worth a full three points. Last season was the first NFL campaign in which visiting teams outscored home teams, John Sheeran, director of trading at FanDuel Sportsbook, noted.

“The media has overreacted to home-field over the years,” Sheerhan said. “While it’s a certainly a small size [of visiting teams outscoring home teams], we have a degree of confidence that home-field advantage is diminishing.”

Another variable is that for the first time in NFL history, different teams will have variable amounts of fans in the stadium at home games due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With more than two-thirds of NFL teams announcing they won’t have fans at home games to begin the season, home-field advantage could diminish even further. The Seahawks will travel nearly 29,000 miles in 2020, the highest total in the league, for example. Teams coming to Seattle will still have to get there, but now won’t have to face the Seahawks’ feared “12th Man” as well.

“I do think home-field is an impact, but the biggest impact is when the road team is on offense and has trouble communicating,” said Chris Bennett, sportsbook manager at Circa Sports. “It feels like less than a full point difference from a normal season.”

“Especially Week 1, I think it’s worth nothing to some teams and up to 1.5 points for others,” Chris Andrews, a sportsbook director at Las Vegas’ South Point Hotel & Casino, told me over the phone. “Particularly Week 1, when these coaches have known their opponent for several months, I think home-field is worth less. After that, we’ll see.”

Every bookmaker I spoke with acknowledged that home-field advantage was one of many unknowns surrounding an unprecedented season.

“There are still so many variables that I’m not sure there’s a lot you can do as a bettor or bookmaker,” Bennett said. “I’m not really doing anything special.”

Lack of hype, dealing with uncertainty

Normally, August is a time for preseason football, which not only builds anticipation for the regular season by discussing training camp standouts and analyzing roster cuts and injuries, but also provides sportsbooks with a good portion of their August handle.

However, with Major League Baseball, golf and MMA, and with the NBA playoffs, Stanley Cup playoffs and other sports being played at a time when they normally wouldn’t be, anticipation for the NFL season has been lacking for bettors.

“We’ve been in a position where there is a whole degree of uncertainty that we’ve never thought about before and bettors have been slower to move than they normally would be, across all sports,” Sheerhan said.

“I would agree that it’s the least-hyped football season in memory due to everything that’s happening with the other major sports,” said Tom Gable, sportsbook director at The Borgata in Atlantic City. “Football has taken a back seat.”

The shutdown of major sports in March due to COVID-19 hurt the bottom line for bookmakers, but also allowed them to offer markets they wouldn’t ordinarily offer (remember the pingpong craze in April and May?) and prepared them for a new time in bookmaking in which events could be postponed or canceled at any time.

Bookmakers have had to reach out more consistently to regulators for new events (seven-inning MLB doubleheaders) and be quick to react to rule changes in various sports.

“We’ve needed to be quite agile and nimble, and react to more breaking news as it comes through,” Sheeran said.

For both bettors and bookmakers, it has been a feeling-out process that will continue into football season.

“With all the constant changes, it has been very challenging,” Gable said. “Trying to keep up with all of the news is tough. As a bettor, it’s probably frustrating as well.”

Ben Fawkes writes for VSiN.com, The Sports Betting Network.

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