Happy New Year everybody. Let’s hope every sporting event we watch this year is as exciting as the two NFL games this past Sunday. However, we should also hope that the referees do a better job than they have in the past few days, especially if you are a fan of the New York Giants or the Miami Hurricanes. I had planned on doing a complete review of this past college football season, but after watching two blown calls over the weekend, I was discussing bad beats with a few friends and they suggested it would be an interesting topic to discuss from the House’s point-of-view. I’ll let you be the judge as to whether it is interesting or not, but here goes!
A couple of years ago, when I first moved from the bookmaking side to take over operations, I took in a seminar on Casino Customer Service that was chaired by Harrah’s COO Gary Loveman. At the start of the seminar, he made a great point that has stuck with me ever since. I don’t remember the exact words but the sentiment was No matter how well you perform, 97% of your visitors are going to leave dissatisfied because they didn’t win as much money as they hoped to. Although he was referring to a brick-and-mortar casino and we know sportsbook bettors do better than the average slots player, this is still a very important point that I constantly remind our Customer Service staff about. When you eat at a restaurant or buy a new car, your expectations are pretty clear to both parties and in both of those cases, the business can do certain things to make sure you are satisfied. However, if you placed a bet on the Miami Hurricanes to win the NCAA Football Championship, there is little I can do right now to make you feel better about the situation.
In this business, there is a fair amount of player turnover and I occasionally get asked what the top cause is. People who ask think it would be technical problems, poor Customer Service or the like, but the answer is really just that they have lost money and didn’t expect to. Bad beats like the ones this past weekend only complicate and accelerate the process. How many times have you (or someone you know) uttered a phrase like I’ll never drink again! the morning after a party? Well, we often hear a similar phrase, I am never betting again! from players closing their accounts. We had a few of those this past weekend after blown calls in the Fiesta Bowl (unless you are from Ohio, in which case it was a great call. I won’t argue the call too much, just the timing, that was real, real late folks.) and the Giants-49ers game. At least in the Giants’ case we have some comfort in the fact that the outcome of another attempt at the Field Goal was in doubt so the 49ers may have won anyway. In the ‘Canes case, if the ref keeps the hanky in his pocket they are the National Champs with no fourther ifs, ands or buts. A lot of players that suffer losses or bad beats don’t even get the chance to close their account and cash-out; they simply walk away with no money left in their account. If every player could win their first few bets and get a payout, our player retention would be much, much higher and we wouldn’t be doing a thing differently!
There is something in the human psyche that causes most of us to remember the tough losses far more vividly than the lucky wins. Every week there are buzzer beaters and game winning touchdowns or field goals made as time expires (just watch any Cleveland Browns game). Many of these really are tough losses but what turns a tough loss into a true bad beat is debatable. Often, that debate comes with referees being involved. Ask anyone in Buffalo about The Music City Miracle or in Oakland about The Tuck (or for those of you that remember, The Immaculate Reception) and you are sure to get an emotional response. In each of these cases, there was debate. Was Wycheck’s lateral really a lateral? Was Brady’s arm going forward to pass or was he really trying to pull it down? Did the ball touch a Raider defender before Harris caught the ball and ran it in? Depending on which city you are in when you ask the question, you are sure to get a different answer.
The plays I mentioned above plus the two controversial calls this past weekend are tough for players on the losing end of the score to take. You could also add in Dwayne Rudd’s helmet toss against Kansas City or the F1 race where Michael Schumacher won only because his teammate was ordered to pull over and let him win. However, at least in these cases there was no debate as to the final score or how bets should be settled (although this didn’t stop dozens of players from pleading their case anyway). This past year had its share of controversial endings that left sportsbooks in a no-win situation.
There was the All-Star game that ended in a 7-7 tie after 11 innings because both teams were out of pitchers. Bettors who had taken the National League -1.5 runs were dismayed to find out their bets were losses even though our official rules state that runline wagers have action after 8.5 or 9 innings and the official score was 7-7. Their point was that since their team may have covered if the game had ended in a normal fashion, that their bets should have been settled as No Action. On the flip side, bettors who had the American League +1.5 runs were pretty happy to cash their winners and would have been upset if the runline wagers had been declared No Action. The only thing that was clear was that this was going to be a Customer Service nightmare. One player suggested we simply pay out the AL bets as winners and settle the NL bets as a push. Unfortunately this would have been expensive and would have created bad precedent. Baseball games rarely end in a tie, but the point is it can happen (Baltimore and the Yankees played to a 15-inning 1-1 tie on September 30th, 1999 in Cal Ripken’s last road game) so the rules are in place for a reason.
Then there was the Wisconsin/UNLV football game in August that was called with 7:57 left in the Fourth Quarter because the power was out at the stadium with Wisconsin leading 27-7. The Badgers had been bet from -3 to -6 and visiting Wisconsin fans had apparently put up a lot of money on their team so there was speculation that the power had been cut by Vegas casinos in an effort to cut losses (most books, including ourselves, have a rule requiring games to go 55 minutes to be official for betting purposes). The rumors proved to be untrue but we got calls for weeks from players wondering why their bet on Wisconsin or the Under had been settle as No Action instead of a win. Oddly, I don’t recall a single call from any bettor that taken UNLV or the Over.
Sportsbooks live in fear of such results as anything that causes confusion or anger for our players is ultimately bad for business. The worst case I can think of in recent years has to be Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS. Bottom of the 15th, score tied 3-3 and the bases were loaded for Robin Ventura who hit a Grand Slam. Final score was 7-3. Wait, he never touched third base or home because he was mobbed by teammates. Make the final score 5-3. Phew!with a total of 7.5 and the Braves the 1.5-run favorite, all is well as the Over is still the winner and there is no impact on the runline. Wait, the umpires only saw one runner touch home so the final score was officially 4-3. Now the Under is the winner. Cue the angry phone calls!for months.
Luckily, this type of result is rare and certainly the bad calls this past weekend did not have this kind of impact but nonetheless they are bad for business. We hope they don’t happen just as much as you do. I’ll be back in a week with a look back at the major Bowl game results and the 2002 college football season as a whole.
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Rob Gillespie is President of Bodog Sportsbook & Casino