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In the Midwest, we’re used to falling leaves, a brisk autumn chill and maybe some early snowfall signaling the stretch run of the football season.

That sort of weather arrived on schedule in 2020, but the football part missed its first few appointments in the Big Ten Conference.

The stands were virtually empty, but otherwise, hints of normalcy at last returned this past October weekend, with the 14-team league kicking off its abbreviated, conference-only schedule of nine games.

Bettors both nationwide and especially in the region took notice, leading to a flurry of activity that paced the most recent Saturday in the sport.

DraftKings spokesman Stephen Miraglia told Gaming Today that Big Ten games led the handle percentage both nationally and in multiple Big Ten states — Iowa (43% of handle), Illinois (41%), Indiana (41%) and Pennsylvania (34%).

At PointsBet, the number of bets placed company-wide was up 20% over last weekend, in spite of a slightly abridged schedule. Company spokesman Pat Eichner said the Michigan-Minnesota prime time matchup was at the crest of the conference’s betting wave.

FanDuel data released Monday showed that the aforementioned game and Penn State’s upset loss at Indiana were the top two NCAA attention-getters Oct. 24.

Add those concrete numbers to a packed sports Saturday that included a mid-afternoon UFC pay-per-view and one of the more bizarre World Series finishes in recent memory, and you could say business was booming, even at the granular level.

“Before the weekend, we were flat (in action) compared with the prior year, but the weekend saw us increase over 2019,” said Brad Rhines, the executive vice president and chief strategic officer for the Des Moines metro’s Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, far and away Iowa’s highest-volume sports wagering provider. “The excitement around the Big Ten returning was legitimate, but I feel like there was a consensus of that and culmination of many sports going on at once as a trigger.”

The initial weeks of college football seasons have been notoriously difficult on bookmakers setting lines over the years because of consistent roster turnover, said Johnny Avello, DraftKings’ head of sportsbook and gaming operations. But the COVID-19 pandemic brought its own set of extra challenges.

According to Avello, home field advantage was lessened in lines because of smaller crowds (cut by roughly half. Availabilities to injury were replaced by even less predictable and later-breaking scratches because of positive coronavirus tests. They even had to figure out how many points a coach was worth to the line when Alabama’s Nick Saban was in danger of missing this month’s Georgia showdown. That answer proved to be at least a couple.

Despite knowing what they were in for, the opening Big Ten week provided its open spots. The line for Ohio State over Nebraska zoomed from -23.5 points to -26.5 in a couple days’ time, and the Buckeyes still trounced the Cornhuskers by 35 points. But then the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions of Penn State tumbled in somewhat controversial fashion to Indiana and those who had money line bets on the Nittany Lions with DraftKIngs were returned their wagers, Miraglia said.

In other words, things are boiling down to the same things they’ve always boiled down to: adapting and adjusting.

“Oddsmakers, as long as we have this information, the players who are not going to be playing, it’s all fine, ultimately,” Avello said. “It’s relatively painless.”

All the same, Eichner said the PointsBets odds team did have less relative growing pains setting their opening-week Big Ten lines than they did with other Power Five conferences who began play in September. In the end, relying on a numbers-don’t-lie approach is increasingly paramount.

“Now, more than ever, the name of the game is sticking to your data and statistics and trusting your numbers. You must be responsive and reactive to what the industry and bettors are telling you, and you shape market accordingly,” Eichner said. “It’s a season that will keep giving us weird challenges and hurdles, and anything is on the table. So you have to continue to follow your models and the essence of bookmaking.” 

About the Author

Danny Lawhon

Danny Lawhon is based in West Des Moines, Iowa, and has maintained a diverse sports journalism career for more than a decade, including with the Des Moines Register. A native of northwest Missouri, Danny earns his betting money as a professional musician.

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