Big Upsets At First Oscars Legally Bet In NJ — But Best Director Not One Of Them

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People watch the Academy Awards for all different reasons. Some want to judge the dresses, some want to root for their favorite movies to prevail, and some (cough, cough, my wife) are tuning in mostly in the hope that Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga will make out on a piano bench and tell the world they’re in love with each other.

But the sports betting community brings a different motivation to watching the Oscars. Sunday night’s awards show marked the first time you could bet on the winners at legal U.S. sportsbooks, with New Jersey the first state that took the plunge. With modest betting limits — wins were mostly capped at $1,000 — it seemed a fun, innocent way to make the opening of the envelopes more exciting.

And then Yorgos Lanthimos happened.

In the last six hours before the awards ceremony began, money allegedly came flooding in on the longshot Best Director pick. The odds were closing, and the man who made The Favourite was almost becoming the favorite.

Some sportsbooks pulled the category, or at least Lanthimos, off the board. Talk of “leaks” and “inside information” spread.

And by 8 p.m., the sports betting community was tuning in to see if the future of wagering on awards show in the U.S. was going to be in jeopardy.

What the heck happened?

At 2:28 p.m. on Sunday, an offshore sportsbook tweeted that numerous new accounts had just opened, deposited money, and made big bets on Lanthimos to win Best Director.

At the legal sites in the U.S., Lanthimos was a huge underdog earlier in the day, with Roma director Alfonso Cuaron considered a massive favorite from the start:

But in a matter of a couple of hours, the odds on Lanthimos shrunk from as high as 40/1 at the start of the day down to single digits. At sportsbooks throughout New Jersey, “sharp money” was moving the line.

It became a race for bettors to find a site that would take action on Lanthimos before they would pull the bet. Around 6 p.m., he was still +3300 at PlayMGM but unavailable almost everywhere else.

Meanwhile, BetStars NJ got bold and put Yorgos back up — but only at 3/1.

Cuaron prevails, questions remain

The betting community stayed up until 11:08 p.m. on the east coast to hear last year’s Best Director winner, Guillermo Del Toro, read the name of this year’s winner … Alfonso Cuaron.

The good news: A major controversy, in which sportsbooks would have taken a bath because someone knew something they shouldn’t have known, was avoided. Had awards secrecy been breached, the NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement would have had to think long and hard about allowing betting in the future on events with predetermined results.

The bad news: We’re not quite sure what the story is behind the Lanthimos momentum, and the reality might be even uglier than if a legit leak had occurred.

It’s possible that the offshore sportsbook was making it all up just to cause confusion for what it views as competitors in the U.S. There are other, more remote, possibilities, like sharps screwing with the odds so they could get a good price on Cuaron (highly unlikely in a low-limits situation), or someone trying to teach bettors a lesson about trusting leaked info in the future.

Whatever the case, one assumes the DGE will investigate and make sure operators all acted appropriately. If indeed no impropriety is found, then Cuaron winning is a better outcome for the perceived integrity of awards-show betting than if the Lanthimos rumors had been accurate.

Other upsets

Four of the six major categories went according to script: Cuaron for Best Director, Rami Malek for Best Actor, Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor, and Regina King for Best Supporting Actress.

But there were two surprises.

Glenn Close was expected to win Best Actress for The Wife, but top underdog Olivia Colman got the nod for The Favourite. As of Sunday afternoon, this was supposed to be a near-lock for seven-time nominee Close:

The other upset came on the night’s final award. The Best Picture prices had fluctuated quite a bit leading up to Sunday, and in the end, Green Book, once as high as +450 at Play Sugarhouse, was barely a 2/1 ’dog against favored Roma. But Peter Farrelly’s mildly controversial movie “inspired by a true friendship” ended up getting the trophy, in what some are calling the biggest Best Picture injustice since Crash beat Brokeback Mountain.

Notably, one blogger saw Green Book’s win coming and provided a fascinating breakdown on the bizarre math that made it possible. (The blog post also predicted Colman over Close, so it’s fair to say this guy is onto something.)

Great day for the sportsbooks?

Although the New Jersey books haven’t released public information yet about how they did with the Oscars the way they did right after the Super Bowl, it’s reasonable to assume they cleaned up.

There was all the dead money on Lanthimos, of course.

And as a DraftKings Sportsbook release last Wednesday indicated, the public was betting on the most public of nominees. For Best Picture, the most bets were on popular films Black Panther, A Star Is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Lady Gaga was getting far and away the most bets for Best Actress (and PointsBet backed up DraftKings’ numbers there). Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale were the two big leaders for Best Actor. Spike Lee was getting all the support for Best Director — until #Yorgosgate.

Not a single winner in any major category was attracting more than 13% of the bets on DK through Wednesday. Unless there was a lot of late, sharp money changing the equation, the first year of legal Oscars betting produced a nice chunk of extra tax revenue for New Jersey.

Photo by Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock.com

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Eric Raskin

Eric is a veteran writer, editor, and podcaster in the sports and gaming industries. He was the editor-in-chief of the poker magazine All In for nearly a decade, is the author of the book The Moneymaker Effect, and has contributed to such outlets as ESPN.com, Grantland.com, and Playboy.

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