clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Growing Strong: Inside the Burgeoning ‘Game of Thrones’ Gambling Business

How one sportsbook has turned a television obsession into big money

(Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration)

Earlier this week an article at Recode argued that Game of Thrones matters more for the media business than either the Oscars or the Super Bowl. Although the audiences for those once-a-year, network-televised events are larger than the audience for any individual Thrones episode, the show lasts longer and is especially well suited to layered discussion, ranging from off-the-cuff analysis and instantaneous takes to deep dives and obsessive speculation (often all within the same site).

Increasingly, Thrones also lends itself to speculation in the financial sense of the word. As Thrones has ascended to its singular place in the splintered TV firmament, it’s not only come to be covered like the Oscars and the Super Bowl, but it’s started to support a similar secondary market of rumors and wagers. Thanks to the series’ big built-in audience, large (if shrinking) cast of characters, and uncertain endgame, Game of Thrones and gambling go together like lovestruck Lannister (or Targaryen) twins.

Some Thrones-related betting contests, like The Ringer’s Thrones Mortality Pool, are just for fun. But in recent years, a number of ostensible sportsbooks have gotten in on the action, with prominent sites such as Sportsbet, MyBookie.ag, and Pinnacle (which debuted its Thrones odds this year) trying to capture a piece of the (hot) pie. The best-known of these books is Bovada, an online gambling and casino-games site owned by a group based in Québec.

Bovada began publishing prop bets for Game of Thrones in 2015. Since the start, those bets have been the personal province of Pat Morrow, who’s been with Bovada for a decade and has served as the site’s head oddsmaker for the past four years. Technically, Morrow oversees all of the site’s wagers, but he’s much more likely to delegate work on the data-based bets that make up most of the site’s offerings. The Thrones odds come from his head alone, both because they require a personal touch and because no one else at Bovada is as qualified to apply it.

Morrow, a Thrones superfan, has read the book series several times in addition to diligently watching the show, which made him surprised to discover the depth of what he didn’t know when he first approached the subject from a professional perspective. “We gave ourselves more than a couple months to really look at everything, really try and go through the fan theories, go through all the Reddit stuff,” Morrow says. “I thought at that point, ‘OK, I think I’ve got a good hold on that.’ And then you go through Reddit and you see these people with the plot points and the theories that they have, and they totally blow me away.”

Morrow says the site branched out into Thrones odds as part of its overarching philosophy of letting the audience’s interest dictate the available bets. “More and more [in] the last few years, I saw how popular Twitter was with sporting events,” he explains. “And as someone who was a fan of the show myself, I’d see that Twitter would kind of be taken over by Game of Thrones chatting when the show would [air]. … It was probably in the last couple of years where we started to cater a lot of what we do not just around the traditional wagering, but also, ‘What are people talking about right now?’ So that’s where we got into, ‘How much can we get out of Game of Thrones?’”

At first, the idea was that Thrones bets would be possible loss leaders, gateways to more gambling for people who otherwise wouldn’t visit the site. That’s still part of the appeal, but interest in Thrones has increased enough that the market matters in its own right. “At the point where we’re at now, these entertainment markets — they won’t have the same margins for us as traditional sporting events, but they are profitable for us now,” Morrow says, referring to the site’s Thrones business. “We do have people that are consistently keeping an eye on them as opposed to just posting them and then hoping for the best, so there will be lots of line movement. There will be lots of new markets that we’ll put up.”

In the past Bovada has posted weekly Thrones death pools (which it might resurrect, Melisandre-style), as well as standing wagers about who will sit on the Iron Throne at the end of the series and one-offs concerning, say, the Season 6 episode in which Arya would regain her sight. Currently the site is offering two Thrones plays: one concerning who or what will kill Cersei (Jaime is favored over Tyrion and “someone/something else,” a category that includes her fondness for Arbor red wine), and one about who’ll hold the Iron Throne at the end of this season. (If no one does, the wagers will be voided.) Morrow monitors the action closely and adjusts the odds as needed, leading to fairly large swings in short spans of time, as evidenced by the movement in the Iron Throne odds between July 1 and 19, a period that straddled the Season 7 premiere.

(Pat Morrow/Bovada)
(Pat Morrow/Bovada)

Bovada suspends betting on Thrones while the episodes air, largely because Morrow wants to watch the show at least once without the temptation to tinker with the odds as each scene unfolds. The site reopens the lines either late Sunday or early Monday. That’s when most of the weekly odds movement occurs, but Morrow never totally takes his eye off the show, so he’s grateful that Season 7’s summer arrival coincides with a slow time for sports beyond baseball.

“We’ve definitely evolved in how we’ve posted these props, how we’ve reacted to these props,” Morrow says. “It’s tricky, especially when you’re talking about something that’s a scripted event versus something [where] you would like to lean on math.” One factor Morrow has learned to pay attention to is where action is coming from. “If someone is betting from what we consider a more entertainment-friendly region or quite literally from an area of the world where we know that filming might take place, alarms go off for that,” he says. In other words, if a big bet comes in from L.A. or another location where an actor sighting or a leak from the set is more likely, “that’s where we’ll look at those bets a little bit more and say, ‘OK, maybe we need to move off that. Maybe we need to temporarily suspend that line.’”

Similarly, if Morrow notices unbalanced action that doesn’t seem tied to a specific locale, he’ll head to Reddit to make sure he hasn’t missed a theory that knits threads together in a new and persuasive way. “If I see a massive bet on Gendry or Tyrion or the Night King for whatever reason, I’ll start scouring the web for more stuff,” he says. But some bettors back underdogs just for the thrill. “Everybody loves a long shot,” Morrow says. “Last year, we had a Hodor at 5,000–1 to sit on the Iron Throne at the end of the season. We took, I think, four different bets that totaled up to $70. … People were looking for their Leicester City moment in the form of Hodor.”

So far, Morrow’s biggest miss might be Gendry, who himself has been missing since Season 3 but seems set to reappear this year. Bovada had him as high as 50–1 in the Iron Throne odds before leaked footage late last year strongly suggested that the character would be back. Morrow now has him at 15–1. “The Gendry stuff really came out of nowhere for me,” he says.

On the whole, though, Morrow is happy with how his predictions have aged. “The only significant loss we have so far on who will sit on the Iron Throne at the end of Season 7 is Daenerys,” he says. “But we still have Cersei as a 1–2 favorite. If we had maybe half or a third of that handle [a gambling term for the total amount of money wagered], but we still had that position on Daenerys, we might be more inclined to perhaps even make her a favorite, but we’re comfortable with what we have right now as Cersei being an odds-on favorite. We could be absolutely wrong, but the way our breakdown of liabilities is currently sorted, we’re quite pleased with how our book [looks].”

Although Bovada has refined its odds-making process for Thrones, the series still poses challenges that the site’s other specialties don’t — namely, that the characters’ fates aren’t always apparent. For instance, although Princess Myrcella seemed to succumb to poison in the Season 5 finale, her death wasn’t definitive. Morrow closed that loophole by leaving her on the list in the death pool, but making her a significant favorite. When the Season 6 premiere made clear that she had died, Bovada paid the people who’d put their money on Myrcella and let other bets about the next death stand.

Of course, death is a slippery state in a world of wights and “what is dead may never die.” In traditional sports betting, as Morrow puts it, “the result usually holds true.” As far as we know, R’hllor has never reversed the outcome of a baseball game or restored an eliminated team to contention, but in Thrones, recently deceased characters can be brought back to life (or something resembling it). Morrow has planned for this eventuality too. “If someone were to die and then come back, like, two months or something like that later, we would let people [keep their winnings], and then if people had lost on ‘next person to die,’ we would probably give them their money back and put them back into the betting pool,” Morrow says.

It’s in Morrow’s best interest to keep Thrones customers coming back, because the rapid growth of ratings — this year’s premiere drew 16.1 million real-time viewers, a 50 percent increase over the Season 6 premiere — has been mirrored in the betting action on Bovada’s site. Morrow says the “handle so far is already about five times higher than last year and it would be about 10 times higher than two years ago.” That increase has raised Thrones into the range of a midseason college basketball game or the early rounds of an ATP tournament. “It’s still not up there with traditional sports betting, but it’s much, much higher than it used to be,” he says.

As new money has made its way into betting on Thrones, Morrow has gained a more accurate sense of where the market stands, which in turn has made him increasingly comfortable allowing higher limits. “Part of the problem of the past was our limits would be a lot lower for entertainment wagering because of all that uncertainty,” he says. “But because of the popularity around it, because of this ability to profile our players a little bit and try and get inside their heads a little bit as to what their biases may be, we do feel a little bit more comfortable in raising those limits.” If you think you have Thrones figured out, you can now put more of your money where your mouth is.

Morrow says that saturation coverage of the series has been a double-edged sword for Bovada. Two years ago, he would have put himself in the top 1 percent in the world in Thrones knowledge. Now he says he’s probably fallen to the top 5 percent. “I think the [typical] fan of the show is definitely much more knowledgeable than they were even a season ago, and certainly more than a few seasons ago,” he says. That’s made it more difficult for Bovada to take advantage of Thrones minnows swimming in water way over their heads. But it’s also played a part in the increased action, and the site has made up in volume what it may have lost in profit per bet.

Although the audience has wised up, Morrow says the odds-setting is getting easier as the Thrones finale approaches. With only 12 episodes left, there aren’t as many plausible end-of-series scenarios as there once were, and credible fan theories aren’t arising at the same rate. But he still sometimes thinks himself in circles as he tries to predict the plot of a series that’s prized for its unpredictability. George R.R. Martin’s tendency to “punish your typical good protagonist” has made Morrow partial to the theory that Jaime Lannister is Azor Ahai, although he tries not to let his personal hopes for the series sway his professional opinions.

With the possible exception of The Simpsons, all series must die, and there’s no obvious entertainment heir to Thrones in the gambling arena. Bovada has accepted action on other shows, including The Bachelor and Dancing With the Stars, but Morrow says that it “doesn’t get the same kind of traction that [Thrones] does.” He’s on the lookout for other series that would work — he’s considered The Walking Dead — but to justify the time spent on research, it would have to be something he likes and something that inspires similar engagement, which rules out virtually every option. “There’s not too many other shows outside of live sports really that get that kind of, your whole Twitter shuts down, or people who know they can’t be watching like, ‘I have to shut my Twitter down right now,’” he says.

Morrow says that blending his work with his fandom has only enhanced his enjoyment of the series, and that he still loves coming across a fan theory that stands up to scrutiny, even if it means he’ll have to adjust his odds (and lose a couple of hours in a message-board black hole). “I find myself watching episodes more intently, often rewatching to pick up something that I might have missed,” he says. “And of course it’s fun to casually mention to friends and family what kind of payout they could have received on something they just saw happen.” Next time you’re mourning a favorite character’s demise, take some solace in the fact that at least you’re not watching with Morrow, who’d compound your grief with an awareness of how huge a potential profit you’ll have lost.

After countless hours of study, Morrow feels a kinship with the Thrones-obsessed fans whose money he’s trying to take. “I think all we’re doing in a roundabout kind of way is trying to find out ultimately what’s going to happen in this show, whether it’s from a financial standpoint or a fan standpoint,” he says. To paraphrase Bovada’s Iron Throne favorite, when you gamble on Game of Thrones, you win or you spend even more money. No house always wins in Westeros, but Bovada does.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.