Like it or not, the Mayweather-McGregor fight is one of the biggest sports stories in years and the betting component is a big part of it. In a recent conversation with Yahoo combat sports writer Kevin Iole, the manager of a prominent online book said it was “almost certain” that the betting handle will top the handle on a Super Bowl. At his property, headquartered in Antigua, the line favoring Mayweather had been forced down to 5 to 1 (minus-500).
At the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where Mayweather is a 7/1 favorite, sports book spokesman Jimmy Vaccaro reports that the betting has been wildly skewed in favor of Conor McGregor. “We have written 18 tickets on McGregor for every one ticket on Mayweather,” says Vaccaro, who notes that he has witnessed several tourists leaving the counter with a handful of tickets on the charismatic Irishman, perhaps intended as party favors but more likely filling orders for folks back home.
Globally, the NFL Super Bowl is the biggest betting event of the year in years in which there is no World Cup. In Nevada, the only state in the nation that allows wagering on individual games, the Super Bowl handle keeps going up and up. It topped $100 million for the first time in 2013 and hit $138.5 million this year.
But let’s not get carried away. At least in Nevada, the big fight has scant chance of attracting as much action as a Super Bowl.
The big casinos in Nevada sure know how to put on a Super Bowl party. Some places now have two, an extravagant soiree for high rollers with food fit for a king and another for ordinary folk with stadium grub (e.g., hot dogs). In Nevada, they have been doing this for so long and doing it so well that the Silver State has become known as the place to be on Super Bowl Sunday if one can’t be at the game.
The Mayweather-McGregor fight is a big deal in Las Vegas, the host city, but pales in comparison to a Super Bowl as a magnet for drawing visitors to town. There is no precedent for contouring the closed-circuit viewing of a boxing match into a gala affair.
The lopsided betting should not be construed to mean that the bookies are destined to take a bath if McGregor should happen to win. The big bets on Mayweather will come in late when the so-called smarts are confident that the line has bottomed out. On a high-profile event, whether or not a bookmaker shows a profit, and to what degree, is typically determined by how well he manages his jeopardy during the final 48 hours of betting.
It’s been this reporter’s observation that boxing attracts proportionately more squares to the betting counter than any other sport. Perhaps that’s because it’s easier to vicariously identify with an athlete who isn’t a member of a team. Moreover, in competitions where the contestants are out to hurt one another, it figures that more bettors will be blinded by tribal loyalties, whether ethnic or racial.
The term “square” once denoted a stand-up guy, a person whose word was his bond (the girls are the fairest, the boys are the squarest is a line in the fight song of my alma mater, the University of Nebraska). In the world of professional gamblers, however, the term means something entirely different.
Here it denotes an unsophisticated player, someone lacking the guile to come out ahead over a significant number of trials. Squares tend to be guided by personal sentiment in making their bets, are prone to bet impulsively, and are quite willing to lay or take odds that aren’t as juicy as what they could have found had they taken the trouble to shop around.
Lopsided betting on a mega-fight is nothing new. When Larry Holmes met Muhammad Ali in 1980, Las Vegas bookmakers reportedly wrote 30 tickets on Ali for every ticket written on Holmes. When Holmes met Gerry Cooney in 1982, reportedly eight of every 10 bets placed in Nevada were on Cooney. In the mid-Atlantic states, the disparity was thought to be much wider.
More recently, the betting activity was heavily skewed in favor of Oscar De La Hoya when De La Hoya challenged unified middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins at Las Vegas in 2004. The disparity wouldn’t have been as severe if the fight had been held in or near Hopkins’ hometown of Philadelphia, but the gap said more about De La Hoya’s star quality than it did about geography.
Going back deeper into the recesses of time, bookies in all corners of the United States were reportedly swamped with bets on James J. Jeffries when Big Jim came out of retirement to challenge heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in 1910. Some of those bookies were able to correct the imbalance at the fight where runners for the bookmaking concession leased to the brothers of Gentleman Jim Corbett circulated throughout the crowd.
There’s a common thread in the four fights I referenced. The popular selections – as measured by the ticket count, not necessarily the total amount bet on each side – all went down the tubes. The linemakers were a lot smarter than the wagering public. The early-birds and the lemmings that jumped on the bandwagon flushed their money down the toilet.
This is not meant to suggest that when it comes to big fights, the so-called sharps always win. As for betting the fight, there’s something intrinsically unappealing about risking a large sum for a small return and there’s always a chance that something fluky will happen.
But mark my words. When this circus is finally over, the squares that put their coin on Conor McGregor will have egg on their faces and many reporters banging out their post-fight stories will weave the name of P.T. Barnum into their copy.
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