“I feel like I’m a coupon-clipper,” says James, who has been parsing through all the deals offered by sports books since betting on your phone became legal in New York on January 8. Gone are the days when he had to drive to the Best Buy parking lot on the Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel to place bets on games, as he did when it took connecting to a cell tower across the Hudson to gamble on sports legally. Now, he’s “looking for volume,” playing with a “healthy amount of money,” and helping friends cash in on the suspiciously generous deals being offered by apps like DraftKings and FanDuel.
In exchange for a referral bonus or two, he did the homework to find the best deals offered by mobile sports books, emailing along his picks to a group of “qualified degenerates … who have jobs or means.” Guys like Max, who has invested around $3,750 in bets, made more or less risk-free thanks to promos that match your initial investment dollar for dollar. (All those interviewed asked to be referred to only by their first names because they didn’t want their family or bosses to know they’re gambling a good bit.) Of the six sports books currently active in the state, Caesars offered the best advantage at the beginning of the gold rush: Once you played through $3,000 of your own money, they provided a $3,000 credit plus a $300 bonus. “Let’s say you have lost every single bet,” Max explains. “For $3,000, they will literally load up your account with $3,000 plus $300 that you can cash out. That’s as risk-free as it gets.” Alas, all good things come to an end: The promotion has been reduced to $1,500 without the $300 cherry on top.
The incentives appear to be working. In the first ten days, 1.2 million accounts were created in New York with almost 90 percent of them new to sports betting, according to a geolocation firm that ensures gamblers are actually in the state they say they are. These bettors are pulling in staggering numbers for sports books: In its first three weeks, the total number of bets taken, known as the “handle,” has exceeded $1.175 billion, according to data from the New York State Gaming Commission.
Barry Sample, the chair of the gaming commission, expected such an impressive level of demand. When asked by email if the eight-figure haul was a surprise, he replied with the confidence of a house expert: “No.” The state’s monthly haul, which has been amplified by the insane early rounds of the NFL playoffs, is expected to exceed New Jersey this month to become the largest mobile sports-betting market in the country.
There are many ways to bet aside from maxing out deals while the house is trying to get you hooked on the rush of a win. Owen, who frequently looked at sports-betting lines while in finance lectures during college, sets up an Excel spreadsheet to follow his bets. He’s also not afraid to short his own position in order to reduce his exposure if a bet is going south, something he calls a “hedging arbitrage strategy.” If he locks in on the wrong money-line bet — like a simple bet $100 to win $150 — before the game and the value of live betting fluctuates, he will hedge against his original guess to cut his losses. “That’s something fun I’ve been looking into,” he says, though it sounds like a lot of work on a $20 bet, which is what he often puts in. This level of care isn’t necessarily the norm: Watching a throwaway Portland Blazers game this month among friends glued to their gambling apps, one asked me to pick which player would score first for a $10 bet. I picked Robert Covington, who does not score all that often, and lost his investment.
It’s not all easy money and throwaway bets, however. James says having money on the line is “a lot more stressful” than just watching your favorite sport. “Initially, you want the action, but it turns to anxiety.” Max, who has become something of a promo evangelist among his friends, has become frustrated educating his circle “about their pretty minimal bets. I’m spending a half-hour explaining to my friend and he ends up putting $20 on the app. No disrespect but I don’t need to talk to you for a half-hour if you’re going to put $20 on the game. It’s not worth it, just go enjoy yourself.” And addiction inevitably rears its head among some gamblers. According to one study from 2016, mobile sports bettors were found to have a higher proportion of “problem gamblers” — the field’s term for bettors whose personal and professional lives are seriously impacted by their habit — than other forms of betting.
For the time being — and with the largest betting event of the year coming up in the Super Bowl — the stress hasn’t overcome the excitement. “What other hobbies do you have a chance to make money off of?” asks Owen. “You go to a movie and spend $15 on a ticket and it’s a sunk cost. You’re not halfway through the movie saying ‘if the bad guy ends up getting away I could actually get my ticket back then a free ticket to another movie.’”
Attention New York sports books: I would pay handsomely for this service.