Listen, I know that the readership of this little blog is maybe 3 people (thank you, wannabe Viagra salesmen!) but I hope that somebody on my twitter feed or on facebook will pick it up and retweet as some sort of educational outreach effort.

 

It’s been a brilliant season in the Premiership, it really has. The air of predictability that seemed to presage each new campaign has been properly swept away by the all-conquering Leicester City, the little frugal club (ok, owned by a Thai billionaire, but shut up – #Narrative) that’s come from nowhere[1]well, the East Midlands, which is broadly the same thing to beat those billy big boots from Chelsea and Manchester[2]Not Arsenal; their 4th position is becoming a universal constant, like pi, or Piers Morgan being an annoying, entitled cockwomble.

When something unexpected happens in sport, you can pretty much always expect the bookmakers to wheel out stories of lucky punters who shrewdly picked the winner[3]yes, it’s a contradiction, and have them gurning like idiots wielding their cheque for however-many-pounds. The newspapers will pick it up, and then soon it’ll be all over your facebook feed (“Bookies take hammering!”) and yay, strike one for the little guy.

It’ll occasionally be highlighted by a more august publication, like the Wall Street Journal (https://t.co/XjCrLQkh2Q, which gave me the unspiration[4]It’s a word I made up. It means I was inspired when I didn’t really want to be. It’s a Friday afternoon, goddammit for this piece), but even they will get quite a few basic facts about bookmaking totally wrong. For the science of bookmaking to be explained – and it is a science rather than art – we’d need to go back to the beginning, and that will really take me all day. It almost did; I fell down that particular rabbit hole for this thing and soon I had 1000 words about bookmaking which was probably not that interesting. So I’m going to skip that and give you the abridged version. All you need to know about right now is the overround.

Basically, the overround is an expression of how much profit a bookmaker can expect to make from an event, and it’s shown as a percentage. You arrive at the overround figure by working out what how much each possible outcome would need placed upon it to return exactly 100 (unit doesn’t matter) and then adding them together. So, in a coin flip where you offered even money on each of heads and tails, that would be 50, twice. That means 100%. No profit. But if we were to make each of them 10/11, the overround becomes 104.76%, with the 4.76% being the theoretical profit. The overround in long-term football markets tends to be in the 130-140% range.[5]this is the condensed version, which goes to show how boring it would have been if I’d not chucked it all away before

When making a book, there is generally already a lot of information about betting habits. This means that the amount of money a bookie will take is based on emotion as well as actual genuinely predicted outcomes. For example, in football, teams like Manchester Utd have a history of success over the years, and people will bet on them regardless of their actual chances. They also have a huge number of fans who might be inclined to bet on them every year. The same applies for other big clubs like Chelsea, Liverpool, and Tottenham. So in a very real sense the chance of a team winning the Premier League is only part of the equation for calculating the odds – at least as important is the anticipated weight of money for each of the teams.

Leicester are not – in the context of the Premier League – a big team. They have a smaller fanbase and historically they’ve not been successful. That means bookmakers would not expect too many bets on them, especially given their near-relegation last season. Just enough to fulfil their quota on in the book. For every pound on Leicester at 5000-1 that the bookies took (and let’s be clear, that was just the biggest price; the Foxes were as low as 2000-1 in some places; selective reporting as always), they’d have taken many many times more than that on each of Chelsea, Man Utd, Tottenham, Arsenal, Man City (and probably Liverpool too). What people tend to forget is that for every winning bet on Leicester that you see reported in the local paper, there are thousands more losing bets on those other teams. There’s a reason that bookmakers like to see favourites get beaten[6]When a big outsider wins an event, it’s known in the name as a ‘skinner’ because the majority of bets will be losing ones, and it’s because it means more people lose.

The gambling industry in the UK is enormous. Pre-season, there are thousands of bets on pretty much every eventuality – winning leagues, getting relegated, handicap betting (teams get a hypothetical head start of a certain number of points and the team that finishes top when those points are added, wins. Leicester would have walked that market too) but many many people will combine bets on the premiership with bets on other leagues. Often, a Premiership-Championship-League 1-League 2 bet is appealing simply because of the huge potential payoff, and the historically closed-nature of the Premier League means that in 99.99% of those bets, those traditionally top teams will have been included.

All of those bets lost.[7]this doesn’t include weekly coupon-busters, like Leicester beating…well everybody

That’s why it’s somewhat disingenuous when you see an isolated case of a happy dude in a Leicester shirt grubbily holding onto his winning betting slip. There are no pictures of the losers who backed Chelsea[8]who probably threw their ticket away in November anyway because that doesn’t feed into the narrative that the newspapers or the bookmakers want to see. It’s not a fun story for the Guardian to say “Some people won a bet. Most lost”, and bookmakers – who already exist in a somewhat shady area between respectability and grubbiness – won’t want their punters to see exactly how much money they’re making. Just as inveterate gamblers rarely talk about their losers, neither do the bookmakers.

There’s already an oddly symobiotic relationship between gambling and football, especially in England; several teams (West Ham, Aston Villa, Sunderland and others) are sponsored by betting companies, and there are even ad boards at games advertising bets on the game that is currently being played. I don’t actually think gambling is a bad thing, in and of itself (Hell, I used to work in the gambling industry and for a time it was a lot of fun), but it tends to annoy me when feelgood stories like Leicester’s are made out to be terrible news for the big bad bookies when they’re clearly not.

If anything it’ll be an excuse for them to shorten the prices on long shots next year. I doubt very much you’ll get 5000/1 about any team next time around, because now that one of them has come off, you can expect to see more weight of money on teeams that punters might think could “do a Leicester”

It won’t happen.  (Also, I’ll say it now, I think Top 4 next season is Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, Man Utd.)

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. well, the East Midlands, which is broadly the same thing
2. Not Arsenal; their 4th position is becoming a universal constant, like pi, or Piers Morgan being an annoying, entitled cockwomble
3. yes, it’s a contradiction
4. It’s a word I made up. It means I was inspired when I didn’t really want to be. It’s a Friday afternoon, goddammit
5. this is the condensed version, which goes to show how boring it would have been if I’d not chucked it all away before
6. When a big outsider wins an event, it’s known in the name as a ‘skinner’ because the majority of bets will be losing ones
7. this doesn’t include weekly coupon-busters, like Leicester beating…well everybody
8. who probably threw their ticket away in November anyway