Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Futures Is Now, Bro

Was listening today to the new episode of Chad Millman’s Behind the Bet$ podcast for ESPN, a show I tend to enjoy despite not being a huge sports bettor.

The focus of the episode is the upcoming Major League Baseball season, and the conversation between Millman and his guests ranged over several topics although mostly had to do with futures bets, including those “over/under” bets on total games won as well as bets on a team winning their division, league, or World Series.

The conversation began with the Chicago Cubs, who Millman pointed out had opened at 10-to-1 to win the World Series (following last year, I assume) and now had moved all of the way to a kind of ridiculous 4-to-1 (I’m not sure which sportsbook he’s using). As the group pointed out, that’s more of a favorite than the most favored team often tends to be going into the playoffs, let alone to start the season.

The Cubs talk was interesting enough, and I imagine might have disturbed my Cubs-hating uncle who wants nothing more than to see them miss the World Series for a 71st-straight year. But I was intrigued by a point made by Paul Bessire of PredictionMachine about how much these World Series bets tend to favor the house -- indeed by a margin much greater than lots of other bets, including other futures bets.

The example of the Cubs who no one is giving more than a 20% chance of winning the World Series right now (what you’d need to break even on a 4-to-1 bet) is obvious enough. Bessire said after crunching all his numbers he personally had the Cubs at about 15% to win, the best of any team but not close enough to the odds being offered to make that a worthwhile bet to make.

Really, though, there are no good World Series futures bets. “If you dig into the numbers,” Bissere explained, and “look at all the confidence that you would need or at least the break-even points for all of the individual teams on the World Series odds and add them altogether you would get almost 200%, meaning that there’s almost 100% juice built into that.”

Like I say, I’m not a big sports bettor, but the point Bissere is making is one I’ve noticed before when perusing these kinds of futures bets. Offering the Cubs at 4-to-1 suggests they are 20% to win the World Series, if the line weren’t overvaluing the Cubs (which it is). The next biggest favorite is the Los Angeles Dodgers at 9-to-1 (or 10%), followed by the Houston Astros at 10-to-1 (about 9%) and so on down the list. What Bissere is saying is that when you add all 30 teams’ odds up, the total is close to 200%, which means collectively the 30 teams are being overvalued by nearly 100%.

I found a list of World Series futures -- not exactly the ones they had on the show, but close (including having Chicago at 4-to-1) -- and just for fun decided to add up the percentages. They actually only totaled about 125%, so unless I’m missing something, which I could be, the futures list I saw (at VegasInsider) wasn’t as punishing as the one the guys were referencing on the show.

Something similar, actually, usually results from these odds on final tables in poker tournaments such as we’ve seen at the World Series of Poker now and then -- namely, the odds are way too short for everyone. I know I’ve written about this at least a couple of times here before, such as in 2012 when I discussed odds being offered at the Rio Race and Sportsbook on the nine players making that year’s WSOP Main Event final table.

That year you could place bet on chip leader Jesse Sylvia to win at 3-to-2 (no shinola), which if taken at face value would suggest he was 40% to win. The odds for eventual winner Greg Merson (third in chips heading into the final table) were 5-to-2 (about 28.5%). Adding up the nine players, the total was close to 175%, illustrating the same point being made on the show about the exorbitant juice in World Series futures.

The majority of those making these kinds of futures bets are more likely to be seeking entertainment than value, of course, although I know there are some sharps who manage to find bets worth risking among the offerings. If I remember correctly, before the season my Carolina Panthers were something like 40-to-1 to win Super Bowl 50, a game they managed to enter as a heavy favorite. Alas, those who made that bet, like the Panthers, were unable to cash in.

For me, listening to the talk about over/unders and futures works as a good preview of what expectations are for the coming year, something that for me can make watching the actual games a little more interesting -- even without having bet on them.

Photo: “race & sports book” (detail), fictures. CC BY 2.0.

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