One of my favorite things to monitor during Saturday night?s UFC 259 card was the constant movement of the in-game betting odds.
Sportsbooks post lines for fights in advance and those lines are wagerable all the way up until a fight begins. Once a bout is officially underway, the in-game betting line is born.
Las Vegas books mostly open these markets between rounds for the higher-profile fights. So an in-game UFC oddsmaker will watch the first round and calibrate betting odds for the small window of time between Rounds 1 and 2. This process rinses and repeats throughout the duration of the fight.
An in-game oddsmaker has to balance what they’re seeing in the octagon with dollars wagered, expected probability and public perception. The live line then is posted up and bets fly in from all directions while fighters guzzle water in their respective corners.
It?s an entire two-minute drill of bettors trying to beat the house.
?It?s definitely stressful,? Circa Sports UFC oddsmaker Nick Kalikas told NESN. ?Thankfully there are some live numbers out there in Europe and offshore. I can take a glance at those when they?re up. Sometimes we?re up first and sometimes they?re up first. I always want to see what else is up there though. It helps to see other numbers around the world.”
Kalikas has the luxury of working at a sportsbook that allows him to take a stand with his numbers. They value his handicapping ability and in-game intuition with the UFC odds markets.
?When I first started here, I had to earn their trust,? he said with a laugh. ?My bosses let me do my thing. They understand what the ultimate goal is. We?re going to take our lumps from time to time, but we?re going to be right more than we?re wrong. I love being part of a team that lets me take a stance.?
Saturday night’s most surprising result came in the bantamweight title fight between champion Petr Yan and challenger Aljamain Sterling.
The fight was pretty even for the first two rounds before Yan started to take control in the third. Kalikas could see the pendulum swinging, so he made Yan a massive -2100 favorite after three. That means you had to risk $2,100 to win $100 on Yan. Kalikas thought Sterling was cooked despite the judges? scorecards showing 29-28 either way.
?After the third round, I had Yan up 2-1,? he explained. ?Heading into the fight, I handicapped it where Sterling would fade in Rounds 3, 4 and 5. Those also happen to be Yan?s money rounds. It really started to play out that way. It was competitive early, but you started to see the momentum shift and Yan was coming on strong. That?s the type of fighter Yan is. His power is outrageous. He makes people wilt under his pressure.
?We had to be market high (at -2100) because you don?t get much of an opportunity during live betting to take the bets where you want. It?s such a small window between rounds. You?re not going to just let these guys hop on Yan at a cheap price. You make it so you?re either going to get a dog bet or get no action at all. It?s better to play defense that way.?
Yan started to separate himself in the fourth round with numerous strikes to Sterling?s head and body. Sterling eventually attempted a takedown and fell to the mat. While he was down on one knee, Yan drilled him in the head with a vicious knee.
The hit was deemed illegal by referee Mark Smith so Sterling ? the huge in-game underdog ? won the fight by disqualification.
?I was invested in Yan pretty heavily on my own, so I was frustrated,? Kalikas admitted. ?That?s not the way you want to lose a bet. I feel for all the people out there that bet him. It was an illegal strike, though. You know you?re on the right side and it?s a flukish foul. It was a loss for the house too. We wrote more action on Sterling, so we lost on that fight.
“That’s how it goes sometimes. You’ve got the right number and you’re feeling good about it, then one hit changes everything.”
In Saturday’s main event, Israel Adesanya was a sizable two-dollar favorite against Jan Blachowicz for the light heavyweight championship. The in-game market on that fight made the books some decent coin. That tends to happen when the underdog pulls the upset.
?The house really needed Blachowicz to win,? Kalikas reported. ?I honestly thought the price was sort of high on Adesanya, but most of the public bettors were still on him. Especially with all the parlays piling up.?
Bettors didn?t appear to be too worried about Adesanya moving up a weight class to fight Blachowicz, who was rumored to be around 20 pounds heavier.
Go figure, that size and strength mismatch turned out to be the difference for Blachowicz down the stretch.
?After round four, I thought Izzy would lose,? Kalikas said. ?I thought it was 2-2 heading into the fifth round. You could even see going into round three that it was way more competitive than many people expected. After Round 4, all the momentum was with Blachowicz. So we made the fight close to a pick ?em before the fifth.?
Blachowicz won the fight, which was a great wire-to-wire result for Kalikas and his bookmaker buddies around town. All the pre-fight Adesanya bets lost at -200 or higher and everybody who jumped on him in-game lost, too.
Every fight Kalikas works behind the counter is a notch on his belt. Experience is crucial for oddsmakers and the more they see, the better they understand the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the in-game world.
Luckily for him, this betting thing isn?t going anywhere anytime soon.
?I expect the UFC in-game market to continue to boom,? Kalikas forecasted. ?I think we?re going to see a lot more people be more patient with fights that are tough to bet pre-fight. You can watch things play out and then make your bet.
?The craze of in-game betting has been phenomenal across the board. People love it and it?s important to a sportsbook?s menu. I expect live UFC odds to follow suit. It?ll take some time, but we?ll get there.?