This was the first football season for a rookie class of American bookmakers, who launched their careers in one of the new sportsbooks popping up in states around the nation.
Many of the rookies running sportsbooks had never taken -- nor made -- a legal sports bet. Past bookmaking experience, in this case, might not have been viewed as a positive, since it was likely illegal.
Some of the newbies moved over from other departments at the casino, such as the poker room, accounting or even valet. They were tasked with opening a sportsbook and managing the action from rabid local fans eager to bet on the home team.
From Oregon to Iowa and from Pennsylvania to Mississippi, handling the home-team bias has been part of the learning curve for new sportsbooks in states that now offer sports betting. Even the veterans in Las Vegas are revving up to get a taste of what it is like to book the hometown NFL squad, when the Raiders arrive in Sin City. There's not a one-size-fits-all solution.
The largest bookmaking companies that operate in multiple states have rarely been affected by home-team bias. For the most part, companies such as Caesars Entertainment and William Hill offered identical lines and odds in every jurisdiction. Some Mississippi sportsbooks were a half-point high on LSU in the NCAA championship game against Clemson, but, overall, there have not been widely varying point spreads and odds at the big books.
It's a different story, however, at the smaller, regional sportsbooks.
Quack attack: Booking the Ducks in Oregon
The Chinook Winds Casino sits on the Pacific Coast, southwest of Portland and a little over 2½ hours from Eugene, home to the Oregon Ducks.
Matt Pond, assistant operations manager and a first-year bookmaker, described the local betting action at Chinook Winds like this: "It's Oregon, the [Washington] Huskies and then whoever was playing the [Oregon State] Beavers."
The Ducks kicked off the football season with a showcase opener against Auburn on Aug. 31. It was Chinook Winds' first Oregon game to book. The sportsbook had been open only four days.
On Aug. 27, Pond and his staff installed Auburn as a 3.5-point favorite, in line with what the majority of sportsbooks were offering around the nation. They decided they would move the line a half-point for every $500 that was bet on either team.
The day before the game, after a barrage of support for the Ducks, Oregon was a 4-point favorite at the book at Chinook, while Auburn was still around a field-goal favorite at most sportsbooks. By game day, the line had swung all the way back in favor of the Tigers.
"An Oregon bettor with two grand would move the line two whole points," Pond told ESPN. "Then, an Auburn bettor would come in with four grand and move it four points. It was a constant cycle of that."
Chris Andrews, a veteran Nevada bookmaker, consulted with the Chinook Winds' sportsbook, helping the new staff with opening lines and managing risk.
"You'll see some funny stuff," Andrews said.
While the bulk of the action at Chinook Winds comes from recreational bettors who like to back the home teams and favorites, Andrews says there are a "couple of wiseguys hanging around over there."
"If you're a dog bettor," Pond said, "we're a great sportsbook to bet. Our favorites generally move up a couple points."
Having a little sharp money in the house helps Andrews keep the betting decisions to amounts appropriate for his new Oregon partners' appetite for risk.
"If I tell [longtime Las Vegas casino owner] Michael Gaughan that we have a six-figure decision, he's used to it," Andrews, now the sportsbook director for Gaughan's South Point casino in Las Vegas, said with a chuckle. "If I told those [Oregon] guys that, they might have a heart attack."
'It balances out'
Jeff Davis, director of trading for Caesars Entertainment, oversees the company's sportsbooks in six states. He jokes about one-sided action on the Bears at its book in Hammond, Indiana, a short drive from Chicago. Overall, though, Davis says home-team bias is often a nonfactor.
"Sometimes, one of our books will have a home bias one way and another of our books in another state will be biased the other way," Davis said. "It balances out."
Rush Street Gaming runs sportsbooks in the heart of Philadelphia Eagles country, in New Jersey (Sugarhouse) and in Pennsylvania (BetRivers). In 14 of the Eagles' 17 games, more money was bet on Philadelphia than was bet on the opponent at Rush Street's books. In 11 games, the Eagles attracted better than 75% of the money wagered on the point spread. (Philly went 7-10 against the spread this season).
Even with the majority of action routinely on the Eagles, Rush Street chief operating officer Mattias Stetz said his operation choses to stick to what it believes are the true probabilities for its numbers. "Hence, we do not adjust lines and odds based on 'hometown bias,'" Stetz said.
The arrival of the Raiders
The Las Vegas Raiders are already on the board at Nevada sportsbooks, listed as 40-1 long shots to win next year's Super Bowl. Station Casinos' sportsbooks already have lines for each Raiders game. (Opponents are set, but dates of the games are not).
Nevada bookmakers don't seem too worried about the new guys coming to town, though, and, for the most part, sportsbooks are expecting business as usual -- unless, of course, the Raiders are actually good.
In 2018, Vegas bookmakers learned what it's like when the hometown team goes on a run. The Vegas Golden Knights, in their inaugural NHL season, captivated the city and made the town's sportsbooks endure a giant sweat by reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
Night after night, bookmakers received lopsided action on the Knights, and the liability on Vegas winning the Stanley Cup grew rapidly. Suddenly, hockey games were the most heavily bet events on the board. When the Knights fell to the Washington Capitals in the finals, a collective sigh of relief is said to have been heard throughout the Las Vegas bookmaking industry.
"If the Raiders are any good, like the Golden Knights were, and they have a Super Bowl-caliber team, then, yeah, the amount of money we're going to take on them will be through the roof," John Murray, executive director of the SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, said. "It will be huge. It will dwarf the Golden Knights, because the NFL dwarfs hockey."
Even if the Raiders were to win next season's Super Bowl, Las Vegas sportsbooks are odds-on favorites to survive. And no matter how rabid a local fan base is, over time, the regional books will find their footing and ultimately come out ahead on any home-team biases.
In August, for example, the sportsbook at Ameristar Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa, opened for business. In a week, the casino racked up a nearly $250,000 liability on bets on the Nebraska Cornhuskers to win the national championship. In the end, that money remained with the casino after the Cornhuskers fell short of a title.