Sportsbooks struggled to adjust to pandemic-laden 2020 NFL season
By Sam Panayotovich
FOX Sports gambling analyst
It’s no secret that 2020 was an absolute roller coaster in so many ways. Booking bets behind the counter of a sportsbook was no exception.
On top of the usual duties of balancing numbers and managing liability, bookmakers were thrown curveball after curveball due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were many questions to be answered heading into a mysterious NFL season with no fans in attendance and the potential for a positive test around every corner.
How much is this "new" home-field advantage worth? Will life be easier on quarterbacks with no crowd noise and clearer audibles? Are the totals high enough? If two starting offensive linemen catch COVID, how does that affect the point spread?
Clearly, this was a lot to analyze without any precedent to fall back on.
It’s a complex issue because a sportsbook can’t differentiate too much from the consensus number in the market. For example, a book can’t take a stance and hang a point total at 51 when the market is sitting at 48. Sharp bettors would absolutely pepper it with "Under" money at 51, 50 and 49.
"When you’re making the numbers, you have your trading team’s opinion, and then you have what the markets are telling you," WynnBET senior trading manager Alan Berg told FOX Sports. "Any good bookmaker knows you can only be so far off the market, or you’re going to get crushed. That's the reality."
Berg helped launch a brand-new trading team in the middle of a pandemic and amidst one of the wildest NFL seasons ever. He left Caesars for an opportunity to manage sportsbooks at all non-Nevada Wynn properties, providing him with a singular perspective on the ever-growing United States betting market.
Adjusting on the fly is part of the job description when you’re a bookmaker — that’s just the life you live.
For decades, standard NFL home-field advantage was worth 2.6 to 2.8 points, meaning that if Team X and Team Y were equal on a neutral field, each team would be a 2.5- or 3-point favorite at home. Over the past decade, however, some bookmakers depreciated home-field to 1.6 or 1.8 points.
Berg remembered playing catch-up more than usual through the first few weeks of the regular season, when the standard home-field math wasn’t adding up.
"Early on, we weren’t making enough of a move toward the lack of fans," he admitted. "There are some pretty good stats out there that show you that defenses tend to play really well at home, especially in the red zone. Teams were really missing that this year with how much the underdogs covered."
In case you were wondering, NFL underdogs were 150-116-3 (56%) against the spread this season, including the playoffs.
In September, I spoke with multiple Las Vegas bookmakers who were losing because NFL games were flying "Over" the totals for combined points. In fact, "Overs" were cashing at a 64% clip in the first month of the season.
The 2020 regular season was the highest-scoring season in NFL history, with 12,692 points. That shattered the previous record by more than 700 points.
Sportsbooks reacted to the offensive fireworks by inflating their point totals in October — while most fans weren’t paying attention. That’s just how they roll. There were three totals in the "50s" in Week 6 and four in the "50s" in Week 7. Go figure, the "Under" went 5-2 in those seven games.
Berg is aware that 2020 could be an outlier season. Sportsbooks will learn from the changes and adjustments they made and trek forward. After all, there’s always a new number to hang.
"Overall, I think you kind of have to treat  as its own thing," Berg opined. "We’ll pencil certain things in and be quick to make adjustments. It honestly might be as simple as throwing out a bunch of stuff that happened. When it comes to player-to-player stuff, there’s going to be a lot of things we can translate over, like how well certain teams performed in particular spots.
"The Browns made a big improvement with their head-coaching change. They clearly had more talent than reflected in their record the year before. They’re a team that could see that double benefit of getting fans back and improving the roster. They also get another year under Kevin Stefanski, and Odell Beckham Jr. returning improves their offense."
Berg seemed to still be scratching his head over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' running the postseason gauntlet and winning Super Bowl LV with 43-year-old quarterback Tom Brady under center. Berg’s favorite team, the Chicago Bears, beat the Bucs 20-19 in early October.
"I’m still not believing it all," Berg cracked. "Sometimes, Tom Brady has this voodoo where everything just seems to work out for him. It’s incredible. He threw a few picks in the second half of the NFC Championship, and the Packers were kicking field goals late when they could’ve tied the game. All these breaks they got were pretty wild. Even the Chiefs losing their left tackle for the Super Bowl. That was a huge detriment to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City passing game. Some people just live a charmed life."
Brady might have been a little lucky on the way to his seventh Super Bowl ring, but there’s no doubting his ability to capitalize on others' mistakes.
"That’s what makes him arguably the best of all time," Berg declared. "Whenever Brady has been given the opportunity to get back in a game or make a big play on the last drive, he always seems to find a way. If you open that door at all, he just kicks it open. They jumped on the Chiefs so fast and never let them in the game."
It’s always interesting to ask a bookmaker about a team to keep an eye on for the upcoming season. Obviously, there’s a long way to go, with free agency, potential trades and the NFL Draft, but it can't hurt to ask.
Berg responded with a player, not a team.
"I’m really keen on whoever can pry Deshaun Watson away from Houston," he said. "I’ve always been a huge proponent of that guy. He’s got that extra element of keeping plays alive, cannon arm. He’s also got that ‘winner gene.’ If the Jets make the move, they’re instantly in the conversation with Watson and the young roster they have. Adding Watson to San Francisco with that defense would make them a legit Super Bowl contender.
"Watson would make so much of a difference for a team ready to win. He had one of the best years for a quarterback last year, with a total disaster of a roster they gave him and a total disaster of a head coach."
All in all, the sportsbooks learned many lessons from a pandemic-laden 2020 NFL season. Bookmakers will keep their notes nearby for early next season while staying ready to rip them up at a moment’s notice.
Sam Panayotovich is a sports betting analyst for FOX Sports and NESN. He previously worked for WGN Radio, NBC Sports and VSiN. He'll probably pick against your favorite team. Follow him on Twitter @spshoot.