Big bets on Bucs before Brady's return: Insider trading or price of doing business? | Opinion

Multiple wagers on Tampa Bay to win the Super Bowl and NFC Championship raise questions. "What I'm saying is those bets we took Thursday were unusual," one sportsbook executive said.

Lance Pugmire
USA TODAY Sports+
  • Multiple bets placed last week on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers led one betting company to suspect foul play.
  • Bettors in locations across the country wagered on the Bucs to win the Super Bowl and NFC Championship.
  • The bets were placed before Tom Brady announced he was coming out of retirement after just 40 days.

In sports betting, the race for news is a cat-and-mouse game between sharp bettors and bookmakers.

And what happened prior to Tom Brady publicly announcing his return to the NFL was enough to make even Tom and Jerry jealous.

Multiple bets placed last week on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers led a veteran bookmaker to throw a penalty flag. 

Thursday morning, a New Jersey bettor placed unspecified large wagers on Tampa Bay to win both the Super Bowl (at 60/1 odds) and the NFC Championship (20/1), according to Jay Kornegay, vice president of SuperBook, which accepted the bets. A separate individual repeated the practice later that afternoon at the SuperBook's Las Vegas operation, betting substantial dollars on the Buccaneers at revised 25/1 and 12/1 odds. 

That was roughly 72 hours before seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady, 44, stunningly reversed course and came out of retirement after just 40 days to play his 23rd NFL season for the Buccaneers.

"We know a lot of books across the nation took a lot of action pretty much at the same time — the same heavy, large plays on the Bucs in the Super Bowl and NFC — in Colorado, New Jersey, in Michigan, in other jurisdictions and then here (in Nevada)," Kornegay told USA Today Sports+. "And what I'm saying is that those bets we took on Thursday were unusual." 

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Oct 3, 2021; Foxboro, MA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) runs off the field after the win over the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.  (Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports)

Kornegay said he knows the names of the two SuperBook bettors, but declined to reveal them other than describing them as "educated players." He said his company is conducting "some internal things we have to do in handling the cases."

He stopped short of saying he would stop the customers from betting or reduce their betting limits.

"There’s not a doubt in my mind that they knew (Brady) was coming back when they placed those wagers on Thursday," Kornegay told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which first published the story Monday. "These were not casual bettors. ... It wasn’t a guy with a Tom Brady jersey at the counter. It was a player we would describe as sharp. 

“There is no doubt in my mind that information leaked sometime in the middle of last week. This is concerning. I don’t think I’ve ever said the NFL really needs to investigate something. But this is something they need to look into, and how it got out, because there are many books that took some sizable wagers in the middle of last week.”

Kornegay softened his position against the NFL Tuesday, saying the "they" he referred to in the final portion of his quote referred to state gaming compliance officials who could be moved to investigate the bets.

"I think the NFL does a tremendous job with their protocols of informing everyone in their organization, from players to agents to ball boys, not to share information with outside parties, and that's why we haven't seen a lot of this," Kornegay said. "But this one — these transactions — seems different." 

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy declined to comment on Kornegay’s concerns when reached Tuesday morning. 

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What can the NFL say? If word of Brady’s change of heart reached the street, how can that be contained? 

And there’s nothing the league can do to curb the intense pursuit of breaking news by reporters competing for scoops or to police video-recorded conversations like the one Brady's Instagram account shared Saturday of the quarterback and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo after a Manchester United game. 

“You’re finished, right?” Ronaldo asked Brady, whose inaudible response was followed by a coy expression that took on new meaning a day later.   

Executives at a prominent sportsbook, who went unaffected by the Buccaneers’ bets, said they weren’t sure what Kornegay’s outcry could accomplish. 

“This was never reported earlier by another news outlet or even a random social media post before he broke the news. The NFL couldn’t have done anything with this until Brady made a decision,” said one sportsbook official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about another company’s affairs. “It seems to be a question only for the bettors: How did they figure this out?” 

Tampa Bay General Manager Jason Licht indicated in a statement that Brady hinted at intentions to return during internal talks with Licht and coach Bruce Arians. 

“Bruce and I have had plenty of conversations with Tom recently that led us to believe there was a realistic chance he would want to come back,” Licht said. 

Jay Rood, senior vice president of risk and trading for Bally’s Interactive, said bookmakers have a right to be miffed if the information was leaked as a tactic to compromise sportsbooks. 

The NFL counts Caesars Sportsbook, DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM, WynnBET, Fox Bet and PointsBet as betting partners. 

“In the world the NFL is operating in now … if you’re going to have official betting partners, they can’t be getting burned like this,” Rood said. “It’s a question for the NFL … to sort of understand if that’s the look they want. 

“Ideally, it should be an announcement that comes across on a larger, more official platform than a Twitter account. That would be the ideal world. But that’s not the world we live in anymore.” 

Beyond crunching all relevant statistics, bookmakers employ a string of people to scour inside information on news websites, reporters' Twitter accounts, additional social media and other sources to help establish their odds, point spreads and totals. 

Sharp bettors are simultaneously on the case, searching fiercely for any morsel, such as a tweet reporting a limping player at a morning shoot around, to improve the quality of their wagers. 

“Things happen … players fall down in the middle of the night and twist an ankle and somehow that information gets out because he shows up at the facility on crutches for treatment at 6:30 a.m.,” Rood said. “We don’t operate in a bubble. It’s cat-and-mouse. That’s why we’ve got to have strong (betting) limits, a strong understanding of who our customers are and keep good relationships with all segments of our customer base.” 

But the recent advent of legalized, nationwide online sports betting has forever transformed the template Kornegay and Rood relied upon while directing sportsbooks for three decades. 

“When I was at MGM, here was the deal: If I’m going to give you as a sharp – a professional sports gambler – a fair shake at a big limit for you to bet as long you want, don’t exploit anything that you know is going to exploit the market,” Rood said. 

The guys who played fair would remain in good standing. If others sought to exploit the system by capitalizing on insider information, Rood said he would be on to them by the second or third occasion, reducing their limits or telling them to take their business elsewhere. 

“That’s profitability management," Rood said. “Yeah, occasionally, we would get hit by guys — or maybe their beards — but more often, they would even give us a heads-up to this to keep that good working relationship. 

“Now that everything’s going digital, that’s not as easy to accomplish because you’re not standing there, looking the guy in the eyes across the counter. So, it’s more important than ever now to have the information disseminated publicly in a fair, equitable fashion. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen.” 

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It can’t, of course. The news arrives unpredictably at a breakneck pace, and like they say in the league, it’s imperative for bookmakers to keep their heads on a swivel.

Kornegay sought to emphasize his tone was not "sour grapes," but rather an obligation to speak up when he observes irregular betting behavior. He long advocated for the expansion of legalized sports betting, professing bookmakers can identify red flags more swiftly than those in betting's illegal underworld. 

When Brady first tweeted his return to Tampa Bay, Rood’s team of traders noticed a rush of less than 10 bets on the Buccaneers to win the Super Bowl at 40/1 odds, leaving Bally’s with an estimated $50,000 in liability before they took the future-book offer off the board and discovered what triggered the action. 

Rood said he unleashed “a few swear words” and exclaimed, “Why can’t (Brady) just go away?” 

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Tipico Sportsbook quickly moved Tampa Bay from 30/1 Super Bowl underdogs to a three-way favorite at +750 with the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. Bally’s had Tampa Bay closer to 15/1 Tuesday.   

Still, there was significant value in beating the books to the punch — especially by doing so Thursday. 

“It’s a crime to do this in the stock market, but I don’t know if we’re at that level yet with this,” Rood said. “It’s not exactly buying Apple stock knowing that Apple’s soon going to release a watch that’s going to change the industry. But it is an exploitation of information that isn’t public knowledge that could allow for financial gain.

"Even though the Bucs still have to go out there and win, this was still … a manipulation. And for now, it’s the price of doing business.”

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