Predicting the Future Based on the Past

History explains a lot about future expectations until proven wrong

If it seems like the same teams are always the favorites in future bets to win a championship year in and year out, there’s a reason.

The previous year’s results have a significant impact on the current year’s futures, but so do traditional fan favorites. Whether it’s college or professional, there are easy explanations for the favorites, but college oddsmaking often takes more work.

Alabama is atop the NCAA College Football Championship favorites because over the past decade the program has proven it belongs there, with class after class of talented incoming freshman. Other programs also bring in top talents yearly, but it’s how those rosters turn over that helps set the odds.

“All the rosters have turnover, so previous seasons have the least amount of impact on collegiate sports,” said Jason Simbal, CG Technology Sportsbooks vice president. “The teams that have the most success tend to be more experienced, and those veterans graduate or get drafted after their juniors or seniors.

“Player recruitment is on TV now; it’s a big deal. But you look at basketball–Duke will lose all five starters and they’ll still be a top-5 team next year.”

It’s time-consuming for sportsbooks to go over all the returning players and incoming classes to set realistic futures odds in college sports. Some schools are no-brainers. In football, it’s schools like Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, USC and Notre Dame. Teams come and go with generations, like Miami and Texas. It takes time to become established as an annual favorite, and it takes just as long, or longer, to fall from grace.

“Even going into the season with 128 teams, there’s really only 8 to 10 that can be seen as favorites,” said Simbal, comparing college football to basketball. “You don’t have 50 to 100 long shots winning a national championship like you might in basketball.”

On the flip side, in professional football, Simbal said it’s almost as if the Super Bowl futures odds can be picked while sleeping. The New England Patriots are good and the Cleveland Browns are bad. Those are known knowns.

In the NFL, individual players aren’t difference makers. With rosters largely staying the same and successful teams generally maintaining front offices and coaching staffs, it’s easy to tell which teams will be good year to year.

With 11 players on the field at any given time, true team sports like hockey, baseball and football are easier to predict. No one player can alter the odds that much; the sum truly is greater than the parts.

“They’re pretty standard unless there’s a major shakeup,” Simbal said.

In the NBA, it’s much the same, unless one of the generational superstars, like LeBron James, makes a move, as he did this summer when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“That will always significantly change the futures odds,” Simbal said.

In each sport, there will be teams that outperform their expectations, and the next year the futures odds will be adjusted. Looking at the 2017 football season and now with the 2018 NFL season underway, Simbal points toward the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In each professional sport, there’s a vast difference in market size and, often, budgets.

“There’s a lot of disparity, and it’s unbalanced [in baseball],” Simbal said. “Kansas City and Minnesota, there’s no money to sign free agents or re-sign their young talent.

“Sure, sometimes they’ll make a run with young guns, but all the big signings go to big markets.”

Professional sports also offer a longer season to prove talent and, aside from the NFL, lengthy playoff series that favor stronger rosters.

“Baseball is 162 games. That’s the greatest example of talent-—you know who’s good,” Simbal said. “Talent-rich teams are more likely to get to the playoffs, and the playoffs are best of seven, so not only are the best teams there, you have to beat them four times.”

The playoff series rule expands to the NHL and NBA, but especially in basketball, where good teams prove hard to overcome.

“In March Madness, it’s crazy because it’s one and done, and any team can win,” Simbal said. “In the NBA Playoffs, the Warriors can easily lose a game, but in the best of seven, you can’t beat them four times.”

With favorites already set, fans then take control based on their own personal biases and desires. Those bets then increase the odds.

“They’re popular because they’re good, and they bet them because of that,” Simbal said. “Then you have a team that’s popular, and people bet them because of that.”

Heading into the 2018 Masters, Tiger Woods was the favorite to win, not because he was the world’s best golfer at the time, but because he got the most bets. He didn’t win and prior to the Masters, Woods hadn’t won a major tournament since 2008 and hadn’t finished better than fourth since 2013—he picked up his first win in five years at the Tour Championship in 2018. His odds were purely based on name recognition and fandom.

In the NFL, more fans are picking the Browns to win than their in-state rivals the Cincinnati Bengals, despite the Browns finishing the 2017 season 0-16. The Browns have better odds to win the AFC than the Bengals.

“The Browns are horrible, historically horrible,” Simbal said. “No one cares about the Bengals. They’ll be a better team, but they’re historically middling, so people think it’s more fun to take a long-shot bet on the Browns.”

Neither Cleveland nor Cincinnati are marquee cities for betting action. And that plays into futures odds too. Other cities falling into that category include Jacksonville and New Orleans.

“They don’t get bets,” Simbal said. “If we put down a million dollars on the Miami Marlins to win the World Series, they’d jump to be the favorite. Just because a team is the favorite doesn’t mean they’re the best team.”

With hometown favoritism, futures bets are where the biggest changes might come with nationwide sports betting.

“That’s the one area where people bet their hometown teams no matter what,” Simbal said. “In two years, regional biases could be very evident in the futures market.”