Sportsbook operators love to push betting parlays in their marketing. But Ontario may prove to be a more challenging market given its long, strange history of parlay wagering.
PlayOntario spoke to a number of regular sports bettors based in the province — including a couple of pros — to get their take on the role parlays will play when sports betting in Ontario opens to outside operators on April 4.
Ontarians are intimately familiar with parlays. They require two or more bets to be linked together to create a single wager. A bettor must be correct on all legs of the parlay to cash, but doing so does produce a greater payout than betting a single event.
In 1992, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. launched Proline, the province’s first — and still only — legal sportsbook (until April 4). For the first 19 years of Proline, bettors could only place parlay wagers of between three and six legs. That changed in August of 2021 when single-event wagering was legalized in Canada.
But not before many bettors soured on having parlays as their only legal option. Parlay wagering normally produces a low probability of success.
As such, many gambling regulars warn new or novice players from betting parlays and being seduced by marketing that hawks them.
Novice bettors should avoid parlays
In fact, in the strongest terms, Dawn Lupul said parlays are best avoided. Lupul was a longtime on-air horse racing handicapper for Toronto’s Woodbine Entertainment Group. She is now a professional gambler betting sports and horses and dispensing wagering advice on Twitter (@DawnLupul).
“No, no, no. Not a fan. If you’re doing this actually to make money, as a professional, you just don’t bet parlays,” Lupul said.
Apart from being tough to cash, Lupul said parlays also rip off bettors.
“The parlay doesn’t parlay out to the true odds. They rip you off on that,” she said. “It’s an advantage built into the house’s odds that they will put out for you. Sure you think, ‘I bet eight teams I could get a 150-1 parlay,’ but it should be more than that if you actually sit there and figure out the true odds value. So, it’s a good bet for the house and it’s not a good bet for the bettor.”
Matt Howorth, the co-host of the Canadian Sportsbet Prime Time Podcast (@CanadianBetting) agrees that parlays are a risky proposition and best avoided by all but seasoned gamblers.
“Sophisticated, or at least experienced sports bettors generally know that parlays carry a much higher degree of risk/loss for the bettor than single-game bets, yet many are willing to accept the additional risk for the opportunity to win more money and create betting action across more games,” Howorth said.
Howorth reasoned that most people that like to bet sports are sports fans first. Thus, novice bettors should focus on enhancing the sports-viewing experience.
“A low-risk single bet enhances that sports fan experience without the need for higher risk parlay,” Howorth said.
ParlayQueen is thumbs down on parlays
For someone whose Twitter handle is @ParlayQueen, you would think Monique Vag would be all about betting parlays. Not so.
“To be honest with you, I would never advise anyone taking betting seriously to bet parlays and actually expect to turn a profit in sports,” Vag said. “Of course, there are benefits like parlay bonuses and being able to bet small and win big, but more than anything when I rarely do bet parlays, they are more for fun and a ‘swinging for the fences’ type of play with big odds.”
Vag is one of the on-air broadcast hosts for the harness racing feed from Woodbine Mohawk Park, Canada’s preeminent harness racing track. Her reference to parlays pertains to betting horses where including several horses on a ticket has a lot of advantages.
“As it pertains to racing, I’m all for parlays or multi-leg wagers,” she said. “The low takeout is the biggest incentive, along with the fact that usually in a standardbred race there is an overwhelming favourite. I can’t justify betting a horse under even money, so if I do like that horse in particular and I think there could be some prices or longshots in subsequent races, then I’m always going to bet the parlay wager.”
Bobby Pizza says parlays can be useful
As for sports betting, Ontario-based professional gambler Rob Pizzola (Bobby Pizza on Twitter, where he’s found at @robpizzola) said it’s going to be “very, very difficult” for amateur or recreational bettors “to ever profit off parlays without getting extremely lucky.”
While Pizzola does caution neophyte bettors from playing parlays, he does have one caveat.
“For a new bettor, it depends on your goal as a bettor and what you want to get out of betting,” Pizzola said. “Because, if your goal is purely entertainment and to make the games more interesting for yourself, then I’m not going to tell you what you can and can’t bet. If you’re looking for pure entertainment, then parlays are a fine option. If you’re looking to get serious about sports betting and your expectation is that in the long run you want to win and you’re new to the space, I would highly recommend avoiding them out of the get-go until you’re a more pronounced bettor and you understand some more basic concepts over time and you do a little bit more learning, it would probably not be the route I would take in the early going.
Instead, Pizzola recommends novice bettors look to prop markets, “because they’re not, traditionally, markets that are frequently bet by professional bettors. The limits are typically smaller. For example, if I want to bet an NFL side on game day, there are sportsbooks in the world that are going to offer me over 100K a bet on an NFL side. That same sportsbook is going to offer me maybe $500 on a prop because they’re way more confident in the number that they’re putting out on the side of the game than they are on the number of the props.”
Higher hold on parlays
Meanwhile, parlays have a bad reputation for another reason. Sportsbook operators have a higher hold (take a higher cut) from them compared to their take on single-event bets.
“I consulted for Bodog for many years,” Pizzola said. “Over the course of five years when I was consulting for them, they held 17% off parlays. They only held, for example, 4.5 to 5% off straight bets. Sometimes, even less than that. So, there’s definitely a high hold associated with (parlays), but that’s because most people don’t know how to bet them correctly.”
Be wary of the parlay marketing push
Given their higher profit margin, Pizzola said he expects operators to push parlays in their marketing in Ontario because companies cannot legally advertise inducements, bonuses and credits.
“This is what dominates all the marketing efforts in the US,” Pizzola said. “It’s just, ‘Come play here. Here’s our bonus. We’ll match your original deposit.’ Now, in Ontario, they’re going to have to look for some alternative marketing. What is most likely to happen is each of the sportsbooks will probably showcase their unique selling proposition in some capacity… Now, there’s going to be a lot of operators that just don’t have a differentiating factor. In my opinion, they’re probably likely to market to things that people are already comfortable with or resonate with and part of that is the parlay betting in Ontario because of the history of Proline. So, whether they’re promoting that they have better prices on parlays or easier to place or some sort of distinct type of parlays, I’m not sure. But, I do think you’ll be seeing some sportsbooks market (parlays).”
Sports betting is legal in neighbouring jurisdictions of New York and Michigan. Parlays are promoted heavily by operators trying to get people to sign up.
“If the sportsbooks want you to do it, do the opposite,” Lupul said. “They don’t say, ‘Hey, look, we’ve got single-game betting here, our odds are -110.’
“If you go on Twitter and you follow any of the books you’ll see they tweet out, ‘This guy hit a 16-team parlay. He put $60 into it and won $100,000.’ Of course they promote that because that’s where they’re getting their hit.”
Ontario’s parlay history plays into it
Pizzola said it’s obvious why operators push parlays in their marketing.
“It’s only logical because 99% of people are not going to even be able to understand concepts like closing line value, or they don’t care to understand those. They’re just, essentially, going to be losing bettors over time. So, a sportsbook is very comfortable taking those parlays because they know they’re going to hold a lot higher on them,” Pizzola said.
“That’s no surprise. Then, if we just think about the history of Ontario, as well, with Proline. It’s just very easy for people to understand (parlays). For example, my sister. This is a true story. My sister bets a Proline parlay every week during the NFL season. When they switched to straight betting or started including single-game wagering, she actually didn’t even know what to do. She had no idea… (Parlays are) what Ontarians understand, for one. On top of it, it’s what sportsbooks make a ton of money off. It’s just a logical thing for them to push.”
Where parlays can be useful for pro bettors
Pizzola points to two ways parlays can be useful to professional bettors:
- “If you actually have an edge in sports betting, and you are betting things that end up positive expected value (EV) wagers, which is where you end up getting closing line value or the line moves in your favour, then you can actually parlay these games, as well, for an additional payout and you will have a positive expected value parlay with a larger payout,” he said.
- “A second pro to parlays is what a lot of people will deal with in Ontario with all these operators is being limited by sportsbooks. Whether they’re actual long-term winning bettors or not, the risk appetite for these sportsbooks is quite low. You often see these stories of people in the US who are depositing into DraftKings and FanDuel and PointsBet. They win their first four or five bets and, all of a sudden, they have their limit slashed to $5. Which is kind of an epidemic in the space right now. Well, a good way to trick a sportsbook into believing that you’re a square bettor or someone that is going to give them money in the long run, is to bet parlays… You could be betting actual good parlays, in the sense that all the legs you’re putting in the parlay are plus EV bets, but you can still trick the sportsbook into thinking you’re a losing player because all they’re going to see is the parlay bet itself.”
First bet: a round robin, six-game parlay
Pizzola elaborated on the last point.
“Personally, when I deposit into a sportsbook, almost exclusively the first bet I will make is a round robin parlay with six games that I like that night.
“Even if I win that parlay, if I go six-for-six that night and I win a big amount of money that’s going to trigger some sort of alert to a trader, they’re going to review my account and they’re going to go away and then they’re going to say, ‘Well, this guy just deposited and the first thing he did was bet a six-game parlay. No problem. We’ll let him keep doing this.’ So, it’s a very good way to fly under the radar. Now, it’s not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. Obviously, if you keep doing that and keep winning, you’re still going to be subject to limiting, no matter what, but it’s a good way in the early going to prevent yourself from getting limited within three, four, five bets.”