When the ball is kicked off or tipped, the grind has only just begun for sports bettors and linemakers alike. The games themselves haven’t changed (well, somewhat) but growth in technology and interest have driven a major expansion of in-play sports wagering opportunities across all sports.
In some sports such as football, it’s a slightly easier to operate the wagering menu. In other games with few stoppages, the pace is a bit more frenetic. That’s where a seasoned trading veteran like Craig Mucklow comes in. (Note: “trade” or “trading” is another term for oddsmaking or linemaking; also punter means bettor, keep that in mind below.) After holding senior trading positions at Europe-based sportsbooks Paddy Power and Betfair, Mucklow joined Don Best Sports in 2013 as the company’s first Vice President of its newly-launched Trading Services Division. Don Best Sports is the leading supplier of odds and data services for U.S. sports and most likely supplies such information to the sportsbook of your choice.
Sports Handle had the opportunity to pick Mucklow’s brain all about in-play wagering as well as corresponding technology; we also discussed in-play wagering’s history, common positions among sharper and more recreational bettors, the mathematics behind rapid linemaking and much more. We hope you enjoy and learn a couple things.
In-Play Betting — Tips and Insights From Player and Bookmaker Perspective Across U.S. Sports
SportsHandle (SH): For readers who have never made or even looked at in-game wagering possibilities, can you identify a few of the more popular propositions, using football and basketball as examples?
Craig Mucklow (CM): To start, there’s the standard money line, point spread and totals, which are offered not just for full games but by half and quarter, with all these variations offered as in-play betting lines during the game itself.
Aside from the basics, some of the most popular markets include “roulette”-style bets as they offer quicker returns back to customer accounts. Examples include races to 10, 20 or 30 points in basketball. For football, the next team to score, the next score type (FG, TD, safety, etc), or individual drive result (TD, FG, safety, or no score) are all compelling.
SH: Looking at the origins in-game wagering, when did sportsbooks begin to be offer these lines and how has its popularity has grown?
CM: The genesis of in-game wagering dates back 20-plus years. At that time, a punter would place a wager on a game and quickly lose interest if it was a bad bet. Bookmakers gradually began to offer in-game wagering opportunities so as to keep the punter engaged throughout the course of the match. The timing was opportune because as bookmakers migrated from brick-and-mortars to online, so the in-play wagering component emerged as a perfect complement, leading to rapid growth. Mobile was the next complementary step. In short, I think it is fair to say that online gaming and in-play betting have grown up together over this 20-year period.
Now that the Nevada books finally have an online/mobile component, they are playing catch-up, with gradual introduction of in-play markets, with some adopting European in-play model technology, and others wisely combining European technology with local data geared to American sports.
It all revolves around the customer experience: Who continues to watch a 46-0 blowout in football unless you have a $5 ticket with Over 46.5? Sports popularity is dependent in large part on gaming.
SH: In terms of sheer volume of wagers, which sport has become most popular in the U.S. for in-game wagering? And can you explain why?
CM: (American) Football is king in the U.S., unlike globally where from a U.S. sports perspective NBA is clearly the dominant force. Placing a bet on football is much easier than any other sport given there is a stoppage after every play and in turn a new betting opportunity. Also, college football has greater coverage in the U.S. then college basketball.
SH: Given that everything moves at such a high rate of speed during games, can you describe your and your team of quantitative analysts/traders’ approach in-game linemaking? I imagine there’s more of an algorithmic approach and less of a human touch than there is with traditional lines.
CM: Our traders are “game managers” of our proprietary quantitative algorithms, the latter which run from start of game to finish. Certain game states you simply cannot create an algorithm for, and we train our group so as to understand teams behavior patterns in specific situations, who is on the court, momentum shifts, and how to merge that data with our proprietary algos to create a fluid yet accurate betting line. It’s a fine art as we are in effect merging a math line with customer perception into a tradable line.
SH: What are the greatest challenges for in-game wagering from the operator/linemakers’ perspective?
CM: Customers are demanding more, and competition will drive product to include increased betting options. The challenge as we all grow is ensuring we track the data and retain the knowledge of each market nuance while accounting for any possible out of the ordinary occurrence. This is difficult to do, and any shortcomings results in opportunities for bettors to take advantage of soft lines. A good example would be the Chargers-Cowboys Thanksgiving game a few weeks back. Once the Chargers kicker was injured we all knew they were not going to kick field goals. This impacts all betting markets and challenges the traders skill sets in adjusting all lines to meet the new reality.
SH: Has an influx of available data given bettors more advantage in recent years? Have the books benefited in the same way to nullify any edge?
CM: The sharpest bettors will usually be ahead of bookmakers as they source the data before it is commonly available. MLB playoffs in 2017 showed an anomaly of home teams winning vs the run line covering. Why take -200 money line when the run line at +140 cashes at almost the same rate? Books were using a standard formula to create the run line prices rather than recognize the scenario changes, and sharp bettors took advantage. As oddsmakers, our challenge is to evolve the models we create multiple times per year to take advantage of the lack of awareness of a changing landscape. Likewise we need to adjust to rule changes as they can have a huge impact on markets, as evidenced with the 2pt conversion (NFL) and how the limited timeouts in the NBA have impacted totals.
SH: I think one common misconception about regular linemaking is that the bookmaker always looks to “balance” the action 50/50 on both sides, rather than taking certain positions. What is the approach in this regard in the in-game wagering realm?
CM: In 20 years I can count on one hand how many balanced books I have had. When trading in game one can only take positions as the game state dictates, and usually it’s a defensive position. For example if Golden State is down 20 at the half then no matter what the algorithm says the bettors seeing Golden State at plus money on the money line and every bet will be on Golden State. Mathematically they should be +300/+400 but instead liability drives the price to be in the +150 region. As a trader you need to know the sport you are trading inside out. Our best traders are specialists in certain sports so that they intuitively know when a run from a good team who is trailing is likely to come, when momentum will shift, when the speed of the game will slow down, and the impact of kicking a field goal into a certain end of the stadium on a windy day.
SH: Are people making a lot of in-game wagers reducing the amount of regular single-game wagers made before games begin, or is in-game basically complementary?
CM: Normal bettors who enjoy the game with a small interest will only have a certain level of expendable income. This could detract from pre-game volume, however with the more “roulette”-type bets and the speed wagers are paid back into accounts, turnover will exceed pre game eventually based on natural churn. The idea is to give the customer a great experience and regular interest.
SH: Do you notice that some players are targeting or exploiting certain events? Do some players simply hammer in-game wagers throughout the course of a game?
CM: The sharp bettors will target certain markets in certain situations. Playing team totals on the Over near the end of a half when the team in possession receives the second half kickoff is a popular strategy amongst sharps. Whenever I bet NHL games I’m only waiting for certain scenarios and specific markets. Many square bettors love the fast-paced markets that pay back quicker as opposed to waiting multiple hours for your wager to be graded. The real popular bets are next to score, race to points, quarter totals, etc.
SH: What is the overall percentage of wagers coming from mobile devices at Nevada sportsbooks today — in-game wagering or otherwise — versus traditional in-person transactions?
CM: Today it’s around 50/50 for those with mature mobile offerings, but this number will move further north. There are a lot of factors at play. Tourists visiting Nevada like going into the brick-and-mortar sportsbook, as do some locals who want to grab a beer and smoke while they watch a game. That said, placing a brick and mortar in-game bet is difficult and usually revolves around stoppages in play, so we should see even more tourists adopt a mobile approach as in-game continues to grow. Locals such as myself prefer mobile, although the better the mobile app the better my experience. While my wife is watching reality TV I can track a game on my phone and place a $5 bet in-game, which is far more interesting to me then watching “Real Housewives” or whatever my wife fancies.
SH: What percentage of customers — suppose the the average sportsbook not one that’s very sharp or very square — do you estimate have made an in-game wager? Or what’s the approximate range?
CM: Right now there is some lack of engagement and awareness so it is minimal. Perhaps around the 10-20% mark if we are referring to physically making an in-play wager in the sportsbook itself. Customers are always wary of new products initially, in particular if they do not fully understand the benefit. Now that the Vegas books are beginning to offer proper in-play product along with mobile betting, the volume of bets will explode, with in-play overtaking pre-game within five years. Betting in-game is more of a level playing field when it comes to bookmaker vs. customer.
SH: From a legislative standpoint, it seems that (hypothetical) sportsbooks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania will probably begin in established brick and mortar casinos/racetracks… From an operational standpoint, how long until a non-satellite books, making lines in-house, might be prepared to offer sportsbooks (1) on mobile platforms and (2) with in-game wagering?
CM: All the best data providers are ready, including ourselves. It’s a matter of integration time with the appropriate platform providers and how quickly the new operators want to bring in-play betting product to market. Being first out to market with a flawed offering does more damage than good. Having the right product with stable technology and the best user experience is what will lead to customer retention. Gaming should be fun, watching your team win and cover the spread should be fun. Trying to place a bet on a game that is suspended or poor value to the customer turns people away and you risk losing them forever.