A new twist on an old bet has taken sports betting in the United States by storm.
Same-game parlays, or SGPs, have emerged as not only one of the most popular bets on the board for bettors but also one of the most profitable for bookmakers.
In last year's Super Bowl, 31% of bets placed before the game kicked off were same-game parlays at BetRivers, Barstool and other U.S. sportsbooks powered by Kambi, an international sports betting platform provider. At sportsbook PointsBet, 22% of all bets placed on the Super Bowl were SGPs. Both companies were anticipating even more Super Bowl SGPs this year. Not bad for something that sportsbooks in the U.S. only began accepting a few years ago.
Parlays have been a staple of American sports betting for more than 100 years. They combine multiple bets into one. A three-leg parlay, for example, features three picks. To win the maximum payout, each of the legs on your parlay must be successful. When the book builds in its margin, the max payout turns out to be less than your actual chances of hitting each of your picks on your parlay.
Historically, parlays were required to include bets from multiple games. Las Vegas sportsbooks refused to accept parlays that included events from one game for decades. You weren't allowed, for example, to build a parlay on the favorite to cover a big point spread and the score to go over the total from the same game, because of the correlation of both outcomes. Old-school bookmakers, hindered by technology of the times, were afraid that the margins built into their parlay payout odds were not wide enough to account for any correlation.
"Not only did we not have the technology to automatically adjust prices, we also didn't have the know-how," said Art Manteris, who ran the sportsbooks at Caesars Palace and the Las Vegas Hilton, among others, during a 40-year bookmaking career in Nevada. "Today's systems have the ability to analyze the data in real time automatically. Old-school bookmakers just couldn't do that. If you have the math and the ability to adjust, like they have today, it can be very lucrative."
How lucrative? In 2022, New Jersey sportsbooks won $450.4 million off $2.4 billion in parlay bets, 61% more than the total amount won on straight bets, according to revenue numbers from the state's Division of Gaming Enforcement.
Beginning of the SGP boom: 2015 Champions League final
FanDuel introduced same-game parlays to U.S. bettors in 2019, but the origin of SGPs can be traced back to some random tweets a decade ago.
In 2012, an executive for British-based sportsbook SkyBet noticed customers on Twitter asking to bet on things that weren't offered by the bookmaker. It sparked an idea. Soon, like a disc jockey on the radio, SkyBet began taking requests and asking their traders to come up with odds on the bets in demand. "Request a Bet" was born.
"It really was as organic as that," Robert Allen, director of brand trading for Flutter, the parent company of SkyBet and FanDuel, said. "It was just designed to stimulate engagement and conversation between the brand handle and our customers."
It worked but started slow. Some of the early requests were of the novelty variety, people asking to wager on reality TV shows, for example, but traders noticed that the majority were centered on betting multiple outcomes from a single game. Two players to score in an English Premier League match that ended in a certain score, for example. The requests increased moderately in the early years, and SkyBet still wasn't sure what it had anything more than a niche. The 2015 Champions League final between Juventus and Barcelona would change that. Allen said SkyBet had taken approximately 3,000 requested bets in the three previous Champions League finals. SkyBet took 92,000 requested bets on the Juventus-Barcelona final in 2015.
"That's when we realized that this really was a thing," Allen told ESPN. "What we thought was a niche was not a niche."
SkyBet now has a Twitter account dedicated to field bet requests (@RequestABet). A staff of around 16 traders are in charge of creating odds for the requests that come from the Twitter account, which has nearly 60,000 followers. The sportsbook offers prebuilt same-game parlays for customers they call "browsers," while also still fulfilling requests from "builders," the customers who prefer to build their own parlays. In 2017, for example, a bettor requested to bet Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski to score on a header and for Arsenal to miss a penalty kick in a Champions League game. SkyBet offered the bettor 400-1 odds on both events occurring and lost £350,000 when they did.
"It was just us trying to find a new thing, a new market, a new tool that was going to really engage that lower-staking, mass-market recreational base who wanted to be entertained," Allen said. "And it just kept growing."
Are SGPs beatable?
A three-leg same-game parlay is the most popular variety at PointsBet, accounting for 31% of SGPs placed in the past two years at the sportsbook. The typical SGP bettor likes to create narratives about how the game will play out and fill their parlay with a variety of point spreads, over/under totals and player props that align with their expected storylines. They play for small stakes, $5-$20 on average, hoping to bet a little with a chance to win a lot. But the odds are stacked against them and almost never as long as they should be. After all, bookmakers don't make a habit of offering odds that reflect the true probability. They'd be out of business if they did.
"Recreational punters want to have a small bet, but a chance at a big payout. They really enjoy it," said Mark Hughes, chief product officer for PointsBet. "On the operator side, the margin is really favorable."
Not all of SGP's are for small stakes. A bettor in New York with Caesars Sportsbook put up $1,500 on a two-leg SGP that included Los Angeles Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to score the first touchdown and the Cincinnati Bengals to cover the 4.5-point spread in Super Bowl LVI. At 22-1 odds, the bet played $31,500, the largest win on an SGP on last year's Super Bowl.
"Same-game parlays offer fans and sports bettors excitement and simplicity to bet on their favorite matchups and players together - making a single bet has that everything you want to win around the game action," said Kenneth Fuchs, chief operating officer and head of at Caesars Digital.
The odds on SGPs are created from algorithms that calculate correlation, something Las Vegas bookmakers didn't have in the past. If Patrick Mahomes throws three touchdown passes, the algorithm formulates how much more likely it is that Travis Kelce catches a touchdown pass, for example. When those two events are put in a same-game parlay, the odds reflect the correlation. PointsBet uses Monte Carlo simulations -- a computer model that predicts the probability of a variety of random outcomes -- to calculate its SGP odds, according to Hughes, the former CEO of betting solutions firm Banach Technology, which was recently acquired by PointsBet.
"Basically, in a virtual sense, we simulate out the entire game and get a virtual blueprint of the game," Hughes explained. "We do that about 10,000 or 20,000 times and end up with about 10,000 different versions of the game. There's a lot of complexity in doing all that, because you have to get every single part of it right. But essentially it gives you a really decent probability of what the game is."
In some states, sportsbooks have reported holding upward of 20-30% of the amount wagered on parlays. But even with those generous margins charged by the bookmakers, wily bettors regularly look for edges to exploit with SGPs.
"If you're very sharp, and you manage to put those sharp selections in a single-game parlay bet, they're going to kill you," Hughes said. "You always get picked off, so we just have to stay on top of it. When guys do pick you off, you need to use that guy to tell you and draw your attention to the fact that this could be wrong, because that guy doesn't usually bet unless he knows what he's talking about."
Last January, it was announced that Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green would play only briefly in a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers due to an injury. Green was going to take the court for the tipoff to honor the return of teammate Klay Thompson from injury before quickly exiting the game. Bettors jumped on the opportunity to bet the under on Green's points, rebounds and assists and put them in same-game parlays to increase the odds. Sportsbooks got crushed.
Those opportunities are few and far between, though, says Alex Monahan, co-founder of sports betting analytics site OddsJam.com.
"I remember seeing the Draymond Green one, but I just don't know how frequent things like those are and how exploitable those situations are in general versus bettors thinking they have an edge and paying the vig," Monahan said.
Monahan believes that over the long run it would be difficult for recreational bettors to overcome the margins charged by bookmakers on SGPs.
"Obviously, [sportsbooks] want to push them because margins are high," Monahan said of SGPs. "We have had certain customers say they think they have a better correlation model than the books. My assumption is that FanDuel's models are pretty, pretty good. There are some customers who are beating them for sure, especially in some weak spots, but I just don't think most people can beat FanDuel on correlation, just given how many traders they have and how good they are."
A sophisticated sports bettor in New Jersey, who asked to be anonymous, said they have found edges in same-game parlays in NFL and NBA. Asked if SGPs are beatable, they said, "Every day? No. Special situations? Yes.
"I believe there are huge edges available on certain nights in the NBA, but I also believe that most will lose, and if you aren't super-sharp, [same-game parlays] are huge money-makers for the house."
Long odds, cushy margins and a random big win
The days of placing a bet before a game and rooting for your team to cover the point spread are waning. The modern American betting market is full of player props, in-game betting and same-game parlays. Not even the long odds and the bookmakers' cushy margins are causing bettors to shy away from them. As we approach Super Bowl LVII, SGPs are as popular as ever.
This season, 46% of customers who bet on the NFL with a Kambi sportsbook placed a same-game parlay and 28% of all pre-game bets placed during the regular season were SGPs.
PointsBet also has seen increased interest in SGPs, which have produced enough marketable wins to keep players trying. The record for most legs on a successful SGP at PointsBet is 20 (the most allowed), and the longest odds ever on a winning SGP is 2,061-1 on a $1 16-leg parlay that was placed in April of 2021.
"I'd say there's a hell a lot more of those recreational $20 bettors, and the more recreational your customer base becomes, the more popular same-game parlays become," he added. "Every now and again, they get a big win, so I think all that mixed together has led to them just getting more and more popular."