With major U.S. sports either canceling or postponing their seasons, the sports betting world is essentially on hold.
Future wagers that may have been winners — or at least had a shot at a good hedge — may be refunded. Other futures in college basketball and the XFL, for example, have already been refunded.
ESPN betting analysts Joe Fortenbaugh, Preston Johnson, Doug Kezirian and Jordan Schultz, and Matt Youmans of the Vegas Stats & Information Network share some of the ups and downs from the past year in sports betting.
Note: This is part four of a five-part series.
What is one (or a couple) of your favorite bets from the past year?
Fortenbaugh: Riding the LSU Tigers football train with unwavering confidence. I backed the Tigers in the SEC championship against Georgia, the CFP semifinal against Oklahoma and the championship game against Clemson. At no point did I second-guess myself.
I loved watching that team play this season and had LSU on the featured screen every opportunity I was given. That team belongs on the college football Mount Rushmore of swagger.
Johnson: For MLB, Washington Nationals 40-1 to win the World Series. I wrote about this one for Chalk during the All-Star break. At the time, Caesars was only 25-1 and I had bet the 40-1 a few days prior, but it was still an incredibly valuable price and opportunity to buy low on a team that had been underachieving to that point despite sitting in a wild-card spot anyway. The trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin on the pitching staff was going to be tough to beat in a playoff series, no matter whom they matched up against. We just needed Scherzer to get the Nats through the wild-card game and into a series, and he did just that. They got hot at the right time.
In college football, LSU over 8.5 wins and Joe Burrow to win the Heisman trophy 50-1. This one is pretty self-explanatory. LSU’s decision to hire Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints to be the new passing-game offensive coordinator and modernize the offense as a whole moved mountains in Louisiana. The Tigers finished 15-0. Burrow’s Heisman victory was the cherry on top.
For the NFL, Lamar Jackson to win MVP at 80-1. I was able to shop around in Las Vegas and get a better price than Caesars was offering, but it doesn’t ultimately matter because this was a great bet at either price. I keep thinking back to it and realizing that we may not see an MVP candidate at the quarterback position priced 50-1 or higher in the futures market ever again. I missed out by not betting enough on this gem.
Youmans: It’s easier to recall the bad beats because those stick with you longer. Plus, people seem to enjoy stories of agony. But I did have a few betting highlights from San Diego State Aztecs games late in the college basketball season.
I bet UNLV +14 on Feb. 22, when the Rebels won 66-63 to end the Aztecs’ undefeated run. I bet on San Diego State -9 against Boise State in a Mountain West tournament semifinal and felt like a fool when the Aztecs fell behind by 16 points in the first half. I felt much better when the Aztecs made a miraculous rally to win and cover, 81-68. I also had a bet on Utah State at 4-1 to win the Mountain West tournament, and it cashed when Sam Merrill hit a late 3-pointer to stun San Diego State, 59-56.
Kezirian: North Carolina Tar Heels hoops played in a game that represented one of my favorite bets. While watching Carolina suffer an excruciating OT loss to rival Duke on Feb. 8, I immediately grabbed my phone to check the Tar Heels’ next game. The situation was ideal. Here is a team that was basically enduring a lost season — given its sub-.500 record and high aspirations — that just lost the only game the players truly cared about in the most painful way possible.
In just three days, the Heels had to travel to Wake Forest and face a team that generated no excitement. I understand narratives can be silly and fool’s gold, but I firmly believed the situational spot significantly favored the Demon Deacons. I mentioned the betting opportunity on a few radio hits over the next three days and discussed it on Daily Wager. Fortunately, UNC cooperated and lost by 17 points, failing to cover as short favorites.
As for the college football season, I was pleased with how I routinely faded the Northwestern Wildcats and Michigan State Spartans. Both were a popular side by sharps, but I just could not back those putrid offenses. I was happy with the results, and I’m probably most proud of my assessment of Sparty because I had played over its season win total. I quickly realized this team lacked an offense, so I aborted my initial assessment and ultimately profited.
Schultz: I was all over Ja Morant for NBA Rookie of the Year and said as much on Daily Wager. Morant entered the league at the perfect time, when point guards have free rein to score and thrive in the open floor. Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins was an ideal fit too, consistently allowing Morant the necessary space to attack the paint like a proven veteran and showcase his electric playmaking ability in the open floor. If the NBA season returns, this one should cash easily.
What is one (or a couple) of the worst bets you made in the past year?
Youmans: Almost every bet on the New York Giants ended with regret. I bet the Giants six times last season and went 1-5 ATS. We all have at least one NFL team we should avoid. Don’t ask why I had a weakness for the Giants — especially when I disliked the coach, Pat Shurmur — but I always look for value with underdogs and got fooled by the Giants more than a few times.
Fortenbaugh: Laying -2 with the Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia back in Week 16. Why I ever thought the spineless Cowboys would show up in that spot will haunt me until the end of time. To make matters worse, I’m an Eagles fan, so my stupidity seriously tainted what should have been a glorious celebration. I hate Dallas. Always have, always will.
In the NBA, Joel Embiid to win the MVP award at 12-1. This was a razor-sharp wager except for the fact that Embiid had missed 21 games entering the hiatus, was embroiled in a war with the great fans of Philadelphia, couldn’t get along with fellow teammate Ben Simmons and was overseeing a Philadelphia 76ers roster that was once again woefully underperforming its preseason expectations (sixth place, 14 games back of first place when play was suspended). If there’s talk of bailing out the airlines, we might as well put the American taxpayer on the hook for this ridiculous bet as well. But let this serve as a lesson to all you aspiring sports bettors out there. This is precisely what a die-hard Sixers fan like myself gets for betting with his heart.
Kezirian: I would classify my last wager as the worst, and it was also my last “Best Bet” on Daily Wager. The North Carolina Tar Heels were laying 3 to Syracuse in the second round of the ACC tournament. The Tar Heels never led, as Syracuse opened the game with a 7-0 run and led by 21 points at halftime. I was not the biggest UNC backer throughout the season and actually dislike laying points with Roy Williams because I think his teams are typically soft, but I got sucked into a healthy Carolina team that was the victim of recent buzzer-beating losses. Plus, I was probably chasing money as I was kicking myself for not backing UNC in the tournament opener against Virginia Tech.
I also need to point out two horrendous NBA futures I made that will be refunded. I backed the Grizzlies under 25.5 wins and the Thunder under 31 wins. Both teams already breezed past those, but I fortunately will get my money back, per house rules, because the season will not last 82 games.
Johnson: I made a large wager on the 76ers to win the Atlantic Division this season at -162. I was buying into a Philly team that re-signed Tobias Harris and turned Jimmy Butler walking out into Al Horford and Jason Richardson. The Sixers were an iconic Game 7 Kawhi Leonard bounce from potentially winning the East and the NBA championship a year ago. What a whiff. I still think the Sixers would have been a tough out again come playoff time, but 65 games into the regular season they were 7.5 games back of Toronto and 4.5 back of Boston and looking at the 6-seed in the East.
In MLB, I had the Tampa Bay Rays under 84.5 wins. The Rays won 96 games, which isn’t anything completely disheartening; I’ve missed by 11-12 games on season win totals before. It has stuck with me because of just how short-sighted I was with how Tampa Bay started doing things in 2018, utilizing opening pitchers and bullpen games to its advantage. I didn’t think it was sustainable, especially with how weak the Rays’ bats looked to be heading into 2019. I was dead wrong, and learning from miscues is important to one’s betting process. I went from betting the Rays under 84.5 to shipping it all-in with Tampa Bay over 90.5 wins, AL East +600 and AL pennant +1400 bets this season. Unfortunately, that 2020 MLB preview won’t see the light of day.
For college football, it was the Ohio State Buckeyes under 10 wins. I was doubting Justin Fields transferring from Georgia to take over under center, and I was doubting Ryan Day in his first season as the head coach. The Buckeyes proved me incompetent and went 13-0 before finally losing a game to Clemson in the College Football Playoff.
Finally, in the NFL, Cam Newton to win MVP at 50-1. I won’t let the Daily Wager producers live this one down. I had flown into Bristol to shoot a few shows live and participate in the fantasy football summit on campus. We were taping an NFL futures segment for SportsCenter, and they wanted me to pick a long shot to win the MVP. I proposed two high variance options at 50-1 that I thought were worth the price: Newton — and Lamar Jackson. They decided to roll with Newton. While I had a Jackson ticket in my personal pocket and cashed it, I would have loved to have given out the NFL’s MVP at 50-1 for SportsCenter (it was as high as 100-1 at some sportsbooks at the time). It will likely be a few years before we have another opportunity like that again.
What is the worst NCAA futures bet you made that now will be refunded?
Youmans: In November, I bet the Wichita State Shockers at 200-1. That futures ticket had no shot, as the Shockers were in NCAA bubble trouble. Not a terrible bet, but I’ll take that refund. At different times, I almost made futures plays on Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, and those probably would have been losers. The flip side of a bad beat is getting off the hook on a bad bet.
Schultz: I was all over Washington Huskies hoops before the season. Freshmen blue-chippers Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart are well on their way to the NBA as potential lottery picks. Alongside Kentucky transfer Quade Green, a sound floor general who gave the Huskies three McDonald’s All-Americans for the first time ever, the Huskies seemed like a genuine sleeper out of the Pac-12. I felt even better after an early win over Baylor in Alaska. But then Green was declared academically ineligible and the Dawgs fell apart at the seams. Simply put, I’m thrilled to be getting my money back on this sour investment.
Johnson: Florida Gators 50-1 to win the championship. It was a smaller futures bet for me because I was grabbing the last remains of this Gators price after Kerry Blackshear Jr. announced his transfer, but to go from preseason No. 1 to 19-12 in the regular season and a Joe Lunardi-projected 9-seed in the tournament is one of the more disappointing bets I made in college hoops this past year.
What is the best futures bet you made that now may not have a chance to cash or will be refunded?
I was in Hawaii before Thanksgiving for the Maui Invitational and watched Dayton destroy Virginia Tech by 27 points. The Hokies had upset preseason No. 1 Michigan State the previous day. The unranked Flyers were on the rise and the secret was about to get out. So I called Ron Boyles, who has made a living in Las Vegas as a professional sports bettor for more than 30 years, and asked him to shop around for Dayton futures odds and get us down on it. Boyles found 200-1 at two books and made the bets. The next day, the Flyers fell to Kansas 90-84 in overtime in the Maui championship game. The triple-digit odds on Dayton disappeared, and most books adjusted to the 30-1 to 50-1 range.
As Selection Sunday approached, the Flyers were forecast as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA East Region. Dayton (29-2) suffered both of its losses in overtime on neutral courts and went 18-0 in the Atlantic 10 Conference. Toppin, a probable top-five pick in this year’s NBA draft, led a complete team with national championship potential. What if? We will never know. There would have been ways to hedge and profit on the ticket even if the Flyers fell short of winning it all.
I held other NCAA futures on Louisville (20-1) and Oregon (50-1) that were live, but those two pale in comparison. I also bet two NBA win totals: Boston Celtics over 49.5 and Golden State Warriors under 48.5. Obviously, this was the worst year for my futures wagers to get refunded.
Fortenbaugh: Let me begin by acknowledging the lack of civility contained within this question. These futures aren’t officially done, yet you’re asking me to do a painful evaluation of myself. Have you no shame, editorial staff?
My worst beat is coming in the form of a massive wager made on the Warriors to win fewer than 49.5 games this season. I loved that bet so much I went back and grabbed more on the under at 49 and 48.5. For all three bets to cash, the Dubs needed to lose 34 games in total.
Golden State lost its 34th game on Jan. 16 with 39 contests remaining on the schedule. The Warriors were 15-50 when the season went on hiatus. Apropos of nothing, I’m now a steady bourbon drinker.
Kezirian: As I posted in early November, I had Gonzaga at 25-1 and West Virginia at 100-1, but I also recognize the nature of the NCAA tournament. So while those are considered good odds based on the betting market, by no means were they likely to cash.
As for one that stings, it’s definitely the Brooklyn Nets under 47.5 wins. I sensed last July, on the day Caesars posted NBA win totals, that this coming season would feel like a “gap year.” Kevin Durant would not play, and all signs pointed to issues with Kyrie Irving joining another new team. At the time of the stoppage, Brooklyn had a 30-34 record. The Nets needed to win all 18 remaining games for me to lose that wager. That’s a tough pill to swallow.
Johnson: I’m with Youmans here, as I had Dayton 155-1 to win the NCAA championship. It isn’t too often you can get a No. 1 seed with a 29-2 regular-season record (both losses were in overtime games, to Kansas and Colorado) at this price. Toppin had the ability to lead the Flyers on a deep run, but they were so potent offensively outside of Toppin as well, and that’s what made them a legitimate contender. Unfortunately, we’ll never see this one play out.
In the NBA, I had the Oklahoma City Thunder +850 to make the playoffs combined with over 28 wins, over 29.5 wins and over 31 wins. The talk is that the NBA will find a way to have some sort of playoff to conclude this season, but I’ve also heard that may only include a total of eight teams compared to the typical 16. The Thunder currently sit in the five-seed in the West and would miss in this instance, and I’m not sure sportsbooks would grade it no action. The season win totals bets typically need all 82 games to be played for action, so even though they had already flown over every number, those won’t likely be cashed either.
Outside of my grouping of OKC bets, my next favorite action in the NBA this season was on Luka Doncic to win the Most Improved Player award at 50-1. I bet him again about two weeks later at 25-1 as well. At the time the NBA suspended the season, it had been whittled down to Doncic and Brandon Ingram to win the award. I know some people wanted to discount Doncic because he won Rookie of the Year the season prior, but Doncic took his game to an MVP level at 20 years old. He was, by definition, the most improved player this year. I’m not sure if we’ll get to see this one voted for action but, win or lose, 50-1 and 25-1 were fantastic grabs.