The NFL Draft is a Struggle for Legal Sportsbooks — But Great for Bettors

Booking the NFL Draft is like "having 16 NFL games and every quarterback is questionable," one oddsmaker said.

Apr 24, 2024 • 16:36 ET • 8 min read
Jayden Daniels LSU Tigers NCAAF
Photo By - USA TODAY Sports

Thursday could be either the best betting day or the worst betting day of the year, depending on what side of the counter you’re on. 

Yes, Christmas is technically in December. But for sports bettors, it can also be in late April, as the NFL Draft provides a good opportunity to win or win back money previously forfeited to bookmakers. At the very least, it offers a chance to get ahead of operators who are usually so good at pricing the National Football League. 

That is, of course, if you’re willing to work a bit. The constant flow of information about which teams are interested in moving up or down in the draft, or which prospects have fallen in or out of vogue with general managers, can be profitable for bettors who move fast — and painful for sports betting sites struggling to keep up. 

“It’s definitely not an easy event to win for the book,” said Aron Wattleworth, the trading team leader at bet365. “But some years will stand out as worse than others. That can usually come down to three or four players/markets where the odds can sway so much that they can end up losing no matter what you had, especially if both sides have been backed at plus money.”

The lines and odds for NFL games are usually among the most efficient a sportsbook can offer, thanks to all the wagering they see from customers. Yet NFL Draft odds (the event starts Thursday night in Detroit) can be much more volatile, meaning a book can get stung when someone like analyst Daniel Jeremiah drops intel that bettors pounce on immediately. 

Joey Feazel, the college football lead for Caesars Sportsbook, said anything really “information-based” can be a pain for oddsmakers. The popularity of the NFL then adds another layer to the equation, as there is competition among operators to offer more and more betting markets. 

“It's something that would be similar to having 16 NFL games and every quarterback is questionable,” Feazel said of booking the draft in an interview with Covers. 

Caesars won a “small amount” on last year’s draft, Feazel said, but the headaches are constant. Agents and teams are throwing up "smokescreens,” and any bet of significance has to be treated like that bettor may actually know something. 

“The expectation is it’s not going to be a big payday for any sportsbook out there,” Feazel said.

No question about it

So why offer NFL Draft markets at all if you’re just going to get killed? It’s not like that’s a new thing; it’s widely known books struggle with the draft. However, the customer is always right, and what they are increasingly wanting is to bet on the draft. Having markets up and ready for bettors is something like table stakes these days, especially for online sportsbooks. 

“It’s a great way to welcome new customers,” Wattleworth said. “However, that only comes with diversifying the markets offered, which is something we do year on year as much as we can.”

Bookmakers are willing to risk getting hurt again because the “NFL is king” when it comes to sports betting, Feazel said, and that remains true even in the offseason. The 2020 NFL Draft was also one of the few sports-related things going on during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, which helped it gain popularity, putting the handle on the event near to what Caesars would see for a full slate of baseball on a Sunday.

Fans are also just interested in wagering on what their team will or should do, Feazel said. The tradeoff for that popularity among casual bettors is the interest from sharper bettors who are adept at digging up information and playing the markets accordingly. 

“I don't think it's going anywhere,” Feazel said of draft betting. 

A parting gift from Pete Carroll?

And because it’s not going anywhere, books have to be ready for battle the same way many draft bettors do, by watching the big NFL insiders for nuggets of information that could shift markets. Operators and bettors have to sift through misinformation as well, which could be thrown out there by teams looking to throw other teams off their scent. 

“[The] main difficulties are info about team plans, injuries, misreads on talent by media to scouts, and trades, especially at the top of the market,” bet365’s Wattleworth said. “It can change from a team needing ‘X’ player to possibly a different position X player. Whispers start as lottery ticket prices, and then become genuine runners.”

One example of market-moving information that wound up being false was the sudden surge in the belief that defensive tackle Jalen Carter would be taken last year by the Seattle Seahawks with the fifth overall pick. The Seahawks instead went with defensive back Devon Witherspoon.

That helped Caesars, Feazel noted, and the sportsbook is again hoping there is a lot of belief this year in something that doesn’t happen. At any rate, Feazel and others aren’t going to let themselves get put in a mental pretzel trying to sort out what’s real and what’s fake ahead of the draft. Instead, the plan of attack is to stick to more “old-school bookmaking,” Feazel said, such as taking bets and then moving odds accordingly. 

“So whether you're taking that action on the smokescreen you're still going to adjust and then when it comes back the other way you're going to just stay ahead of that and just really try to find that balanced line,” he said.

The volatility in draft odds was highlighted recently by Fanatics Sportsbook. The relatively new name in legal sports betting reported on Friday that odds for Louisiana State quarterback Jayden Daniels to go second overall shifted from -300 to -120 and for North Carolina QB Drake Maye from +240 to -110 following a “surge of Maye betting action.” 

Anybody but Jayden

The odds for Daniels to go second, which at this time would mean being selected by the Washington Commanders, then shortened somewhat to -130 after some buyback on the LSU product. Maye’s odds moved to +110. 

There was then “major buyback” on Daniels over the weekend, with Fanatics moving the odds on him going second to -170 and for Maye to +140 as of Monday afternoon.

“From 6 p.m. ET Friday to 10 a.m. ET this morning, Daniels to be the No. 2 pick has drawn over 11 times more handle than the next-closest draft bet (under 6.5 receivers drafted in Round 1),” the company said in an email. “In fact, Daniels to go No. 2 has received 52.4% of the handle among all NFL Draft props at Fanatics Sportsbook over that span.”

Wattleworth said betting on the first overall pick of the draft is usually popular, but with this year’s almost-certain selection of USC quarterback Caleb Williams at #1, the action has moved toward markets with “more reasonable prices,” such as the subsequent slots. 

Meanwhile, bet365 is also sweating a few other outcomes, such as whether Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy will rejoin his college head coach, Jim Harbaugh, in Los Angeles and if Texas defensive tackle Byron Murphy will be the first defensive player selected.

Nevertheless, while booking the draft is a challenge, tighter limits and smaller bets can help operators manage the risk. 

“No matter what the sport or event, we are always looking to try and offer as many markets as possible,” Wattleworth said in a written response to questions from Covers. “Whether we always end up with the most is arguable, but we will always be at or around the top ranks for Draft market offerings, and will be adding some more before draft time.”

Caesars is hoping the Commanders will go Maye over Daniels with the second pick, Feazel said, as that is one of the biggest decisions for the book. 

Quarterbacks just generally attract a lot of action among draft bettors, especially the Over on how many will go in the first round. With that in mind, Caesars is also hoping quarterbacks Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr. will fall out of the first round, contrary to some mock drafts, to help the bookmaker with another one of its major decisions, Feazel said.

Feazel truly won't be able to rest easy until Caesars turns off its pre-draft markets at around 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, although the bookmaker will still have some in-play options during the draft itself. 

“Again, it's not our favorite time of the year, but we're looking forward to Thursday and it being over,” Feazel said.

It’s probably not all that bold of a take, then, to say that sportsbooks despise the NFL Draft. In fact, that’s almost exactly what was said last week by Derek Stevens, the chief executive officer of Nevada-based Circa Sports, during an appearance on VSiN. 

“As a football fan and a sports fan, I love the draft,” Stevens said. “I love the hope that every fan, every fanbase has on draft night, other than Jets fans. I love everything about it. But, now that I'm in this sports betting business, I've come to the point where the draft is the worst day of the year.”

To Stevens, there’s no winning on Draft Day — he likened the event to a “donation” to bettors —  beyond signing up some new users and customers for their sports betting app, which recently launched in Kentucky, the operator’s fifth state. 

“Overall, we just got no shot,” Stevens said. “There's just no way to win. Not when all of a sudden you post... somebody getting drafted Over/Under 15.5 and Under might be like -240. Next thing you know, it goes off at +600. You get smoked along the whole way. So it's terrible.”

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