XFL and betting: How sportsbooks offer odds for teams that have never played

When the XFL kicks off its season Saturday, again, a crucial difference from the 2001 and 2020 short-lived iterations will be readily apparent: Fans increasingly are betting on games with sportsbooks offering bets for the new league.

Several sportsbooks have game odds for this weekend’s four contests, over/unders and who will win the title. BetMGM’s favorites are the Seattle Sea Dragons and Arlington Renegades at +450, with the Orlando Guardians the longest shot at +800 (a +450 odds means a bettor risks $100 to get the chance to win $450). Online sportsbook Bovada has the St. Louis Battlehawks favored to win it all at +350, with the D.C. Defenders bringing up the rear at +650.

So how do sportsbooks set these odds given they are for a league that has not played yet? There have been no preseason games, so the teams to the general public are just lists of names.

“Look, it’s challenging for the bookmakers, equally challenging for the bettors,” said Adam Pullen, Caesars Sportsbook assistant director of trading. “Like, we’ve never seen these teams play a real game.”

Bookmakers interviewed for this story all offered similar tactics: Look at who the quarterback and head coaches are, other skill players and weigh toward the ones with NFL experience.

AJ McCarron is the quarterback for the Battlehawks. He played at Alabama and was on three NFL rosters, throwing for six touchdowns. Thus the Battlehawks are favored on the road this weekend by 2 1/2 points over the San Antonio Brahmas. Their quarterback is former Notre Dame standout Jack Coan, who failed to make the Indianapolis Colts’ roster last year.

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The sportsbooks do have a track record with new football leagues from last year with the USFL. Betting was very light on that league, which played all its games in one city. Part of the problem in terms of attracting a high volume of bets, called handle, is the USFL’s place on the calendar in the late spring and early summer.

“Kind of feels like the XFL will probably be a step up, you know, given … the new ownership, kind of high-profile ownership with Dwayne Johnson and things like that,” said Kevin Lawler, head of trading at PointsBet. “It’s also probably better timing in terms of the NFL is just finished. So we still kind of have interest piqued in some of the football bettors that we have here. So it’s a pretty quick transition from Super Bowl finishing into the XFL. So that’s one of the benefits that it has over the USFL, as well.”

The XFL and broadcaster ESPN are set to heavily promote the gambling angle, with over/unders and betting lines included in the score and time of game box during broadcasts.

“We will be very aggressive with talking about sports betting during the game, talking about prop bets at the start of the game, hitting live lines after scoring plays,” said Bryan Jaroch, ESPN’s coordinating producer of football programming. “We will be aggressive with that as Vegas adds more options to that.”

While Jaroch said prop bets could come a few weeks into the 43-game season, bookmakers talked about the end of the season as a likely time to introduce them once more game and player data is accumulated. Prop bets are bets on specific plays, like who will score the first touchdown or how many passing yards a quarterback throws for.

Whatever the timing of prop bets, the broadcast promotion should drive business, said Johnny Avello, DraftKings’ director of sportsbook operations. He recalled that before the ban on sports gambling was lifted in 2018 by the Supreme Court, he worked for Wynn in Las Vegas, where betting on sports was legal.

“And anytime there was a new league that was coming into fruition, they would always contact us just to see if we were interested in taking bets on it,” he recalled. “So I think the leagues know that in order to get something launched properly, to get eyes on it, get attention … to get some sort of gambling on it helps promote it.”

While bookmakers and bettors are in challenging territory setting odds and placing bets on teams that have never played, that doesn’t mean lines haven’t moved. Bovada set the Houston Roughnecks versus Orlando Guardians as a pick ’em, meaning a toss-up. But then money flowed in on the Roughnecks, said Pat Morrow, Bovada’s head oddsmaker. The bookmaker reset the Roughnecks as 2 1/2-point favorites.

“So a good subset of our player base thinks that we opened the Houston Roughnecks a little too low in that spot,” Morrow said.

Why?

“Could be a variety of reasons, could be that we undervalued the team, could be that there’s an XFL rule or variable that perhaps we’ve not properly taken into account,” Morrow said. “So far, I think one of the tough things for us with a league like the XFL coming back and having so little to work with is we’re going to be learning as we go, as well.”

Avello suggests another possible explanation: the Guardians quarterback, former Denver Broncos first-round pick Paxton Lynch. It’s in part why DraftKings assigned the longest odds for the Guardians to win the XFL title.

“Paxton Lynch, who really hasn’t done much anywhere playing in any professional level, and he didn’t play well in the USFL, so that’s why they’re at the bottom,” he said.

Lynch lasted three seasons in the NFL, making four starts, before short stints with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League in 2021 and the Michigan Panthers of the USFL last year.


Paxton Lynch throws a pass for the Michigan Panthers in the USFL last year. The former NFL first-round pick will try to prove XFL oddsmakers wrong. (Vasha Hunt / USA Today)

Houston’s head coach also is Wade Phillips, who has a long track record in the NFL, offering another possible explanation for why money moved away from the Guardians. The Guardians head coach is former NFL cornerback Terrell Buckley, who has no head-coaching experience.

What about simply waiting for this weekend’s games to finish, accumulating the game data, and then setting odds from there? That idea didn’t get a lot of traction.

“We didn’t hold off but wanted to be mindful with our pricing, as this is a league with not as much information available,” BetMGM said in an email, a sentiment echoed by others. “The further we get into the season, the more confidence we will have in our pricing and may look to get things up quicker.”

(Top photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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