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IN-DEPTH 3 January 2020
NFL: Is less more?
By Tim Poole
With the help of DraftKings and RedZone, Tim Poole examines how operators are adapting for the new NFL season using the lessons of last year

Super Bowl LIII was one to forget for neutrals. The lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history saw the New England Patriots defeat the Los Angeles Rams 13-3, leaving first-time NFL watchers exploring the options of watching paint dry or grass grow. Both seemed superior alternatives.

Patriots fans were delighted of course, especially those who backed their favourite team with a sports wager. But that’s exactly where the operators come in: they ended up enjoying the Super Bowl far less than anyone. FanDuel, for instance, reported a loss of $5m for the showcase event and Rhode Island, where the Patriots are the local team, suffered a sportsbook loss of $2.4m.

Was this just a one-off episode where the players won big, or are there lessons to be learned for bookmakers going into the new NFL season? Outside the Super Bowl itself, there was even more food for thought during the regular season, in what was the first-ever NFL campaign involving fully-regulated US sports betting outside Nevada.

One key learning from last year centres around simplicity. According to Stephen Baumohl, Co-founder and Trading Director at US sports-focused operator RedZone, “less is more.” He tells Gambling Insider: “Looking at the breakdown of bets by market, it is clear the majority of action is concentrated around certain market types and the idea of having as many markets as possible might actually be counter-productive to user experience.”

This message of simplicity is echoed by Wynn Resorts’ Sportsbook Director of 13 years and now DraftKings Head of Sportsbook, Johnny Avello. Avello, who joined DraftKings last October, believes operators shouldn’t overcomplicate the fact promotions and customer service are critical to the user experience. 

He explains to Gambling Insider: “There will always be lessons to learn, but our goal hasn’t changed. When it comes to bookmaking, wagering promotions and offering the best customer service are key.”

While the user experience must be maximised, another simple lesson from last season is for sportsbook operators not to risk profitability by failing to keep up to date with the latest developments. Injury news, for instance, can have a huge impact in NFL and odds can sway significantly if a first-choice quarterback is unavailable; particularly with the existence of so many sharp NFL bettors.

Baumohl says: “Stay on top of the sport. Information has always been important, but getting the information fast and reacting to it immediately is more important than ever, because the clients will certainly be doing so. Whether it is injury news, weather or simply a statement from a coach with a clue to the gameplan, if adjustments aren’t made, it will cost money.”

Following the mantra of “less is more,” RedZone is looking to remove “clutter” and only focus on markets players are genuinely interested in. Baumohl says: “We are going to offer more quality over quantity by increasing the amount of popular markets, such as player props, and removing a lot of clutter. We want to make sure the markets people want to bet on are there in abundance and easy to find. We plan on expanding our in-play offering with more opportunities to bet within the game, by offering markets such as drive outcomes. We are also making a big effort to have maximum up time for markets in-play.”

The mention of in-play is timely, as new to this season is an expanded agreement between Sportradar and the NFL, encompassing live betting statistics. Although the data supplier has been an NFL partner since 2015, when it became the league’s exclusive distributor of play-by-play stats, it will now provide NFL data to sports betting operators. It will also distribute audio-visual game feeds for sportbooks in select international markets.

This however, is where DraftKings takes an inverse view. For the fantasy sports and gaming company, it is instead a case of increasing quantity. Asked what DraftKings will be doing differently this year, Avello says: “To start with: more wagering options, bonuses for deposits, starting from as little as $5, and promotions throughout the year.”

Perhaps the reach of DraftKings’ database, along with its reputation as a household name among fantasy players and sports bettors, gives it different aims. The size of an operator  and exactly what goals it is trying to achieve should help define whether it utilises a more refined approach, like RedZone, or offers more in the way of markets and promotions.

Although the NFL regular season runs from September to January, there is no denying the importance of the playoffs – and the Super Bowl in particular – to sportsbooks. The focus should be even greater following last season’s favourable result for bettors. Once again though, DraftKings is taking a different approach. Avello insists: “In our case, we wouldn’t change a thing; the game was booked perfectly and the bettors did a great job of selecting the winner.” 

But, for Baumohl, there is a case for taking “more ownership” of their trading prices. While the RedZone Co-founder admits there will always be good and bad results associated with single games, he adds: “Odds feeds serve a purpose, but understand your client base, understand the markets and don’t be afraid to shape the book to fit your own needs as an operator. The market was only ever going to move towards the Patriots when the Rams opened as favourites, so it was possible to stay ahead of the move and keep a more balanced book at least.”

Baumohl’s advice shows there are ways to limit losses if Super Bowl LIV follows its predecessor in going the way of the player. But, as Avello points out, that is ultimately the nature of the beast; gambling companies can’t ever begrudge bettors making the right pick. After all, that’s what the players are in it for.

The best bet, taking into account the single-game nature of the Super Bowl, is for operators to maximise their long-term performance through the regular season. As Avello suggests, a focus on the customer is key, and as Baumohl stresses, certain markets will be more important than others. On a more basic note however, there is perhaps one more takeaway point operators need to bear in mind. Baumohl says: “The other big lesson from last season is to stop predicting the decline of Tom Brady and the Patriots.”

*This article was originally published before the current NFL season began, in Gambling Insider's Sports Betting Focus

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