Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?
Well, if you’re smelling spring football, then yes, indeed, you are smelling what Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — co-owner of the XFL — is cooking, as kickoff to the third iteration of the league is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET Saturday, when the Arlington Renegades play host to the Vegas Vipers.
So are sportsbooks salivating over the prospect of spring football?
“These leagues — CFL, XFL, USFL — only have sharp bettors and very little recreational play,” said Jeff Benson, the sportsbook operations manager at Circa. “They aren’t fun to book and miss the expectations operators hope for during NFL downtime.”
Maybe Jay Kornegay, the executive vice president of race and sportsbook operations at the Westgate SuperBook, is a little more jazzed?
“There was very little interest last year for the USFL, and as of now, we don’t have high expectations for the XFL,” Kornegay said. “We’re hoping for the best for the new league, but it’s a tough sell for bettors. Hopefully, it gains some followers and gets traction in its first year back.”
Has The Rock met his match? Is the XFL doomed to go the way of He Hate Me?
Well, not so fast. Some bookmakers are welcoming the XFL with open arms.
“I’m a big proponent of the smaller leagues,” said Adam Pullen, the assistant director of trading for Caesars. “I like to book as much as possible. It’s the business we’re in. Take action. I like taking bets, making numbers, I’m for every league no matter what. That’s been my M.O. We’ve booked all the spring leagues, and we’ll continue to do so.”
Pullen isn’t expecting boffo box office for the XFL, but he’s also not not expecting it.
“We’re right on the heels of the Super Bowl, they’re jumping right in, so we’ll see if there’s any carryover. I don’t have any expectations on handle, but we are getting some good futures action,” he said.
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Pullen noted the Houston and Arlington teams seem to be drawing interest.
“I don’t really know what’s going to happen and how many people are going to want to bet, but people love football, and it’s got the television coverage, so I’m anxious to see how it does,” he said.
DFS players, assemble!
Of course, there is a certain sub-section of the populace that is ready and willing to embrace the XFL: hardcore bettors and DFS players.
XFL Week 1 — which features all eight teams in action, with games at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. ET both Saturday and Sunday, with the afternoon games on ABC and the evening games on ESPN — presents some interesting gambling opportunities.
“From a gambling perspective, especially in Week 1, the unders all look good,” Newsham said. “They’re 36-37 on most sites, and most of them opened around 39.”
“You should probably have pretty low expectations, especially in the first week,” Freeman said. “I’m leaning unders in most spots. Overall it just takes a little longer for an offensive unit to jell together. I’m expecting a lot of chaos.”
Another reason for the under lean, according to Newsham: The XFL rules have been slightly modified since 2020, the last time they took the field.
“It used to be a 25-second play clock, now it’s 35 seconds,” he said. “I’m projecting less than 60 plays per game per team, and maybe even closer to 50.”
Newsham says to pay attention to the coaching staffs.
“The Orlando Guardians coaching staff includes Robert Ford, who last coached at the college or pro level in 2011 as a wide receivers coach at Texas Southern,” he said. “And based on the coaches for the D.C. Defenders, I expect them to be run-heavy. And the teams coached by Bob Stoops, Jim Haslett, and Wade Phillips? These are reasonable coaches who will probably shade to the pass.”
One player both analysts are very interested in seeing is the mercurial Josh Gordon — yes, that Josh Gordon, the wide receiver with gobs of ability who saw his NFL career derailed by numerous marijuana suspensions.
“He’s the biggest headline in the league,” Newsham said of the Seattle Sea Dragons wideout.
Speaking of the Sea Dragons, they are Newsham’s pick to go all the way. Their odds of doing so are set at +450 at DraftKings.
One issue, however, that is sure to stymie bettors is — at least thus far — the XFL doing a lousy job of injury reporting and the like. This also plagued the USFL last year.
There is pain. Then there is torture. Then there is masochism. Then there is doing XFL projections.
— Justin Freeman (@JustinFreeman18) February 15, 2023
“You would think by now these spring leagues would have picked up on the fact it’s an essential part of satisfying this particular crowd of people — gamblers — who will be pretty avid watchers,” Freeman noted. “‘Let’s make sure we have a strong level of integrity in our reporting.’ But that’s not really the case. And there’s no Adam Schefter out there with the scoop. It’s pure chaos, a lot of things happening right up through kickoff. You have to have someone you trust in the space you can lean on, and know even they’re not going to be batting 1.000.”
To that end, Freeman said he has “spies” at all the stadiums, ready to relay information they glean during the run-up to the game, such as which players are on the field with the first team.
“There’s a huge information gap out there right now, and it tends to reward people who are out there working hard,” Freeman said. “But the information is extremely difficult to come by.”