From the Rumor Mill: Bookmakers may be rethinking in-play Oscars betting after large bets on winners come in very late

Offering odds on the Oscars has always been considered somewhat risky, since the votes are done prior to the telecast which means the results are known beforehand. The finals process is described on the Oscars.org website. According to the website, the voting is open to all Academy members and after the final vote is cast

Offering odds on the Oscars has always been considered somewhat risky, since the votes are done prior to the telecast which means the results are known beforehand. The finals process is described on the Oscars.org website. According to the website, the voting is open to all Academy members and after the final vote is cast they are tabulated by the auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) and only 2 partners from that firm know the results. Naturally, with such a prestigious opportunity no one would ever suggest that the two partners of PWC would bet on the results or even leak them to others, but others are involved in the processing and counting of ballots and it is conceivable they could pass along the results to date, even if they don’t know the final tabulation. Most likely all employees of the company involved in the process have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but it wouldn’t be the first time that smaller employees would consider breaking that rule if they could benefit monetarily (see Draft Kings).

In the first season of Survivor, all workers on the program had to sign an agreement with CBS not to reveal the winners to anyone until the shows were aired, but when there was serious coin on the line, the risk was worth the reward. I recall talking to an Intertops manager at the time who said they had close to a six-figure liability on Gervais after a computer tech claimed to have broken into the CBS database and noticed that all the contestants had an “X” on their name except for Gervais. As many will recall, contestants were “x”ed out in the newspapers on the day following the episode to indicate they were voted out.

Oscars betting patternsAccording to the manager thousands of bets came in on Gervais at odds as high as 3-1 (he was part of the mutual field) after the tech revealed what he discovered, which naturally was concerning to Intertops despite the fact Gervais didn’t appear to have the skills to win. However, since the show was pre-taped the possibility of the upset was real. Intertops capped the wagers at $50 since the show was not live and the offering was strictly for marketing purposes, but thousands of bets at $50 adds up fast. The manager said he breathed a sigh of relief when an anonymous person phoned the sportsbook and offered to wager up 5 figures on Richard Hatch to win at 3-1 odds. Obviously, no one would risk breaking the non-disclosure clause for a mere $150 profit but for the possibility of winning several thousands it’s different. Gervais was voted out two weeks after the tech revealed his mistaken theory and Richard Hatch won the first season of Survivor.

But there is another possibility of how results could be known ahead of time that doesn’t involve anyone on the show or related to the voting tabulation. Since most votes are cast online it is quite conceivable that hackers could access the voting database and tabulate the results on their own. If the tech in the early 2000s could break into the back end of the CBS website and if Russia could hack in to the 2016 voting system in the U.S. Presidential elections and affect the voting there, then naturally a good hacker could access the Oscars voting database (which one would assume is less secure than the Presidential voting systems). Hackers wouldn’t have to change any results, just download the voting and tabulate the results. And with today’s technology it can almost certainly be done without leaving a trace of the hack.

That brings us to this year’s Academy Awards. In nearly every category the odds on the winners dropped significantly in live betting prior to the winner being announced. Icarus, for documentary feature, dropped from the 7/2 odds it was listed at on Saturday to 3/2 odds just prior to the show. The Silent Child in the documentary short dropped from odds around 3/1 to 7/5 just prior to the telecast and other categories saw similar drops. But the most astounding drop was for Best Picture. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was listed anywhere from 4/5 to 2/3 in the betting, while The Shape of Water was listed at around 3/2 odds. Those odds were fairly consistent from the day following the BAFTA Awards until the first two hours into the Oscars telecast.

But then things changed. There was nothing that happened in the Oscars telecast that would indicate any reason for the odds to move, but move they did.

At Betfair, Bet365 and William Hill, max bets kept coming in on The Shape of Water for no apparent reason. Around 9 pm ET Three Billboards was a 10/11 favorite, with The Shape of Water at 6/5 and by 11:00, when the four main categories were to be announced, Three Billboards was up to 2/1 while The Shape of Water was down to a 3/5 favorite. And just prior to the award being announced Three Billboards was being listed at 3/1 on Betfair, while The Shape of Water was only being offered at 2/5 odds. At Bet365 The Shape of Water became almost a 1-2 favorite. A similar pattern occurred on Moonlight last year where it moved from a bit of a longshot to almost co-favorite by the time the Best Picture Oscar was announced, but the movement wasn’t as severe.

It’s uncertain how much money the sports books lost on The Oscars, if any at all, since European books tend not to discuss that sort of thing and American facing books didn’t offer in-play wagering on the Oscars, but the fact there was no tweets at all by any of the major sports books following the best picture win speaks volumes. And a former manager for one of the sportsbooks, J.T., who I keep contact with told me that the management at his former company have been discussing whether to just end betting at 8:00 pm ET like most other sportsbooks because they are tired of losing. “I don’t know for sure how much money they lost on the Oscars, but it had to be significant,” J.T. told me. “And they were losing big money on it when I was there. This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s one thing to have a loss leader to attract new customers, but not when the loss cuts into overall profitability.”

Bettors, however, can learn one valuable lesson for future Oscars betting – follow the late steam. Someone probably knows something.

Read insights from Hartley Henderson every week here at OSGA and check out Hartley’s RUMOR MILL!

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