Updated January 27, 2019 - 7:00 am
The Super Bowl line is dissected on a daily basis during the two weeks leading up to the game. But Patriots and Rams backers might be better off waiting until after the game kicks off to place their bets.
If Super Bowl LIII is a back-and-forth battle, there’s a very good chance a better line will be available on both sides during in-play wagering than it was in pregame.
“Whichever team you’re trying to bet, if they’re trailing, you’ll get a better number,” said Craig Mucklow, who helped pioneer the use of in-play
betting 21 years ago while working for StanJames.com, a United Kingdom sports book.
Welcome to in-game betting. In its infancy, Las Vegas bettors and sportsbooks have had to adapt to the the latest wave in sports gaming.
If the Rams or Patriots rally for a big comeback win, Las Vegas sportsbooks will surely take a hit from the fast-paced betting option in which the point spread, total and money line are constantly adjusted during a game.
“Every time a good team is behind and comes back to win, it’s just a matter of how much we lose,” William Hill sports book director Nick Bogdanovich said. “That’s across the board in every sport. If the Yankees or Red Sox get down three or four runs and come back to win, we’re dead.”
Bad beat for sportsbooks
Two years ago, sportsbooks suffered their worst in-play betting nightmare when the Patriots stormed back from a 28-3 second-half deficit in their 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
New England was 16-1 on the in-play money line when it trailed 28-9 in the third quarter, and William Hill bettors cashed 159 in-play wagers at odds of 10-1 or greater.
“You don’t want to get torched for seven figures,” Bogdanovich said.
Already a huge hit overseas, in-play betting has become increasingly popular in the United States with the prevalence of mobile apps. It accounted for 22 percent of the overall wagering handle at William Hill in 2017 and Bogdanovich estimates that figure has since grown to about 30 percent.
“It just keeps growing and growing, there’s no question about it,” he said. “People love it.”
In-play betting gives gamblers the chance to hedge their pregame wagers, change their pregame position, go for a middle and more.
“You get to watch the game and get a feel for the flow of the game. That’s more important than any statistical trends,” professional sports bettor Frank Carulli said. “Sometimes I won’t bet the game to start, I’ll just bet it in-game. Especially in the bowl games, because some teams show up and some don’t.”
Mucklow, a mathematician with an advanced degree in probability, said he expects in-play betting to surpass pregame betting in the U.S. in four or five years.
“It won’t take long because people are at home and can bet on their smartphones,” he said. “I don’t think it will ever hit the heights of Asia, but I expect it to probably be a 65-35 split eventually.”
Mucklow is vice president of trading for Don Best Sports, a Las Vegas-based company that supplies data and odds to legal sportsbooks worldwide. He leads a team of 26 traders who monitor the in-play odds on up to 55 games per day.
The affable Englishman gave the Review-Journal a behind-the-scenes look at making in-play odds this season during the Rams’ 38-31 win over the Vikings in September.
Here’s a running recap of the action:
Algorithms and analytics
Mucklow stands for the entire “Thursday Night Football” game and is a multitasking maestro, keeping track of seven screens that show two TV feeds, market odds, a bet ticker, a spreadsheet to manage liabilities, a scorekeeping display and a trading interface.
Mucklow’s fingers mostly dance on the trading interface that shows the in-play odds calculated by the Don Best computer algorithm.
The algorithm has extensive knowledge of trends and tendencies of players and teams and much more.
“We know the impact of pitching changes, the impact of an empty net, the impact of heat and humidity on the second half totals of football games,” Mucklow said. “All these kinds of pieces of data impact the line. We’re always looking for analytics, and some of the best bettors are, too.
“There’s always someone smarter than you out there that picks up trends faster and does the data better. It’s a cat and mouse game all the time.”
The algorithm opens in-play wagering with the closing pregame line of the Rams by 7 and minus 300 on the money line with a total of 49. As the game progresses, the model constantly adjusts the odds based on the score, time remaining, down and distance and other factors.
Computer model merely a guide
But it quickly becomes apparent that the algorithm is merely a guide for Mucklow, who constantly overrides it and punches in his own prices.
“It’s a bit like the wife giving you advice,” Mucklow said facetiously. “It’s there, then you ignore her.”
While the human element is still a huge part of making in-play odds, Mucklow has implemented safeguards for Don Best traders. They’re restricted to a maximum line move of 5 points off the computer model and can’t offer odds of more than 25-1.
The latter safeguard would have prevented the FanDuel sports book in New Jersey from offering 750-1 in-play money line odds on the Broncos in the final minute of their 20-19 win over the Raiders this season. When Brandon McManus kicked the decisive 36-yard field goal with six seconds left, one bettor won $82,000 on a $110 wager. FanDuel claimed the error was caused by a computer glitch.
Rams on sale
The Vikings go ahead 7-0 on a touchdown pass by Kirk Cousins on the game’s opening drive. Before the Rams even touch the ball, they drop to 3½-point favorites.
“Everybody will come in and bet the Rams,” Mucklow said. “Because you couldn’t get them at minus 3½ pregame.”
Sure enough, wagers on Los Angeles start to pour in on the ticker. The Rams then tie it 7-7 on a touchdown pass by Jared Goff.
That escalated quickly
After two long drives take up most of the first quarter, three bets totaling $150,000 are placed on under the adjusted total of 52.
But things escalate quickly from there in the shootout, as the teams trade touchdowns and Minnesota goes up 17-14 to push the first-half total over 24½.
Too good to be true
With the Vikings trailing 21-17 and facing a second-and-20 at the two-minute warning, Mucklow tries to entice money on Minnesota, moving it to plus 425 on the money line.
He does this because the Rams are poised to have back-to-back possessions at the end of the first half and start of the second half.
“So it could be a 10-point or 14-point swing,” he said. “The idea is to put the number higher on the Vikings money line because most people don’t realize who’s getting the ball in the second half. I had to double check myself.”
After Minnesota punts, Mucklow makes it 5-1 on the money line and money pours in on the Vikings.
“Because, aesthetically, it looks wrong,” he said.
Two plays later, Goff hits Brandin Cooks for a 47-yard touchdown pass to put the Rams up 28-17. Mucklow moves Minnesota to 7-1 moments after bettors jumped all over it at 5-1.
“It looked too good to be true,” he said. “It doesn’t always work out like that.”
Bettors pound under
The Vikings close to 31-28 late in the third quarter to kill $157,000 in bets on under 52. But a total of $313,000 is still at stake for one Don Best client on under 67½.
“I won’t get religious until the fourth quarter,” Mucklow said.
With the Rams leading 38-28 midway through the fourth and facing first and goal at the 6, they look like a lock to push the total over 67½. But Sam Ficken misses a 28-yard field goal.
“In about four minutes, I’ll be praying to God for a pick-six,” Mucklow said.
Off the grid
With six minutes remaining, the algorithm automatically shuts off and Mucklow takes over manually.
“On any game, with six minutes left, it shuts down because it can’t tell the game state,” he said. “There are certain things you can’t teach an algorithm. You can’t teach an algorithm motivation. It can’t tell when a team is trying to kill the clock.”
True to his word, Mucklow prays for a pick-six from Cousins after $180,000 in wagers are placed on under 73½.
”I want points,” he said. “I don’t care who.”
Cousins promptly throws a pass toward the sideline that appears ripe for the picking. It falls incomplete, but Dan Bailey’s 40-yard field goal makes the score 38-31 and kills all bets on under 67½.
With 1:29 left, Cousins loses a fumble at midfield and the Rams run out the clock as most pregame bettors settle for a push.
The in-play roller-coaster ride ends on a high note for one of Don Best’s biggest clients. Mucklow turns a profit of $233,000 from $1.5 million in wagers for a 15.5 percent hold.
“I’ll take 15 percent every day of the week,” he said. “I’m in form at the moment, but there’s bad days and good days. You need a little bit of luck at the end.”
Super Bowl LIII
Who: Los Angeles Rams vs. New England Patriots
When: 3:30 p.m. Feb. 3
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Line: Patriots -2½; total 57