Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Some of the most influential bookmakers in Las Vegas roamed the sidelines of a professional football game freely as invited guests of the league.
The scene would have been pure fantasy up until recently. It became reality when the Alliance of American Football hosted a contingent of local sports book luminaries in San Antonio for its preseason rehearsal games three weeks ago.
“‘Surprising’ would be a good word for it,” said John Murray, director of Westgate Las Vegas Superbook who was part of the trip. “But I think it was smart.”
Many are surprised by the AAF, which is riding high as the latest attempt at a secondary pro football league heading into its second regular-season week, with a pair of games scheduled for both today and Sunday. Week 1 drew surprisingly impressive television ratings and positive social-media engagement.
Long-term success has been rare, if not nonexistent, for similar leagues over the last several decades, but a forward-thinking perspective on gambling could help the AAF break the pattern.
While the NFL is still fumbling with the best way to handle betting on its product after nearly 100 years, the AAF appears to have a firm grasp immediately.
"Sports betting, and really all real-time games and activities during professional sports increase engagement and create a significant new cashflow for both the league and the athletes," AAF co-founder Charlie Ebersol explained in an e-mail late Friday night after criss-crossing the country on flights throughout the day to prepare for week 2.
Ebersol said he wanted include oddsmakers in AAF preparations not only to foster transparency but also to hear their insights, which he took to heart.
Murray, who made the sojourn to San Antonio alongside Superbook Vice President Jay Kornegay and representatives from AAF partner MGM Resorts International, similarly described the experience as worthwhile.
He said conversing with those close to the league was more useful than the actual games — like in NFL exhibition games, the starters only played a few series — but that he came away with enough information to feel comfortable opening future odds. The Westgate planned to post point spreads on the league’s games either way but wouldn’t have posted numbers on teams to win the championship, which takes place April 27 locally at Sam Boyd Stadium, without the first-hand exposure.
The San Diego Fleet, coached by former Rams head Mike Martz with Arizona State graduate Mike Bercovici at quarterback, saw some solid action at 10-to-1, but Murray said AAF betting volume has been nearly invisible otherwise.
“There’s not much to report in terms of handle for the first week,” Murray said. “It wasn’t much, frankly. It was mostly just (professional bettors taking) a number. We saw the Saturday games were low-scoring, so we dropped the totals on the Sunday games and took a bunch of over bets. My guess is that it was nothing more than people just betting over with us and taking under somewhere else in town.”
Murray doesn’t forecast much of an increase as this season progresses. The novelty of football betting during the traditional offseason will wear off, and the competition will build up.
The NCAA Tournament takes over casinos in March. It’s hard to imagine many recreational gamblers breaking down how the Birmingham Iron’s defense matches up with Atlanta Legends quarterback Aaron Murray when they can be handicapping how a Sweet 16 opponent plans to slow Duke’s Zion Williamson.
And for as lauded as the AAF’s pro-scoring mandates such as required two-point conversion attempts and restricted blitzing have been, they haven’t paid dividends yet. There was only an average of 38 points in the first four games.
“You can make these rule changes to make it easier for the offense, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have skill players to take advantage of the rule changes, you’re still going to see low-scoring games,” Murray said. “I think the first week of the year it’s no surprise that the defenses would be ahead of the offenses, so I don’t think it’s time to sound the alarm yet but there’s still a long way to go.”
The AAF may agree considering Ebersol found himself in the unlikely situation of somewhat tempering expectations after Week 1. The league’s potential for growth also extends to the betting world.
It has grand plans to eventually include in-game betting as part of its app in conjunction with MGM. Ebersol said sports betting was a, "very early," part of the business plan.
"It has always been our belief the single entity structure and our unique relationship with our players afforded us the ability to (use) R&D technology and gaming relationships that no other league could attempt and execute," he said.
There’s a clear commitment to making betting on the games easier, and that’s one of the best moves an upstart league can make.
It’s well past the time to stop denying, or underestimating, the impact that gambling holds over football.
“How much of the NFL’s success and ratings is due to fantasy and betting? I would say a huge amount,” Murray said. “I think that the Alliance of American Football sees that legal sports betting is on the verge of being everywhere and they want to embrace that.”